Laura Linney is in love. Just watch the radiant expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the character of Lucy Barton, a role she played in two separate engagements at the Bridge Theater in London, and is now reprising on Broadway in “My Name is Lucy Barton.”
The feeling is obviously mutual, because the character of Lucy Barton returns the actor’s commitment with a quiet but searing fidelity to her visionary performance. Actors often speak of “inhabiting” a role; here, the devotion feels reciprocal.
Like the spare but elegant novel by Elizabeth Strout (“Olive Kitteridge”), on which Rona Munro (“The James Trilogy”) based this theatrical treatment, the dynamic is the elementary, fraught relationship between mothers and daughters. Here, the situation is not the expected one between a mother on her deathbed and a daughter struggling to affirm the nature of their relationship before their inevitable final parting. In this case, it’s the daughter who lies on the hospital bed and the long-estranged mother who comes to visit. Linney slips effortlessly from the harridan mother to the wounded daughter, strong characters both, dispensing with the usual folderol of switching off costume pieces or twisting herself into physical contortions. It’s all in the voice, the voice, the voice, and it’s beautifully done.
Tightly framed by set designer Bob Crowley’s backdrop of a beautiful if untouchable Manhattan, the impressionistic narrative unfolds in full view of those spectators allowed to sit on two sides of the stage. Although the look is smart and sophisticated, there’s really nothing in the script that calls for the confessional/courtroom staging. Still, smart and sophisticated is nothing to sneeze at — not with the glorious Chrysler Building in the background.
Lucy Barton’s illness, we quickly learn, is not a fatal one, and her mother’s visit is no deathbed farewell. Nonetheless, neither of them is willing to part with the other until they have explored and come to terms with the oldest and closest of all human relationships, the elemental bond — and the great rifts and yawning gulfs within that bond — between mother and daughter. Without the dramatic pressure of imminent death hanging over their heads, their rapprochement is realistically kind and compassionate, based on gentle reminders of their lives before The Big Break. This suits the quiet modulation of Strout’s narrative voice while avoiding the loud, loutish tones of most deathbed dramas.
Mother and daughter relationships are always complicated, to say the least. But they don’t necessarily have to be vicious and destructive, either. That’s not Strout’s style, and it’s not what director Richard Eyre is going for, in his viscerally penetrating but emotionally restrained directorial approach. Casually observing the very real cracks in the mother-daughter relationship, the one-time director of the National Theater creates a kind of peace zone, a talking space where mother and daughter can safely reveal themselves and confront their old grievances without fear of letting their nastier emotions get the better of them. It’s a confessional sector of sorts, where bad thoughts and cruel words can be aired without fear of a fight to the death. Parents might think of it as a “time out” corner for their squabbling offspring. For a writer like Strout, it’s a quiet space for speaking softly about incendiary issues like life and death and fear and loathing. And, yes, of love.