‘Summer, 1976’ Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht are Terrific
Summer, 1976 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is predominately two solo performances with a few dynamic interchanges, the principal one occurring at the conclusion. The static, expository “play,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, occurs in the minds and reflections of Diane (Laura Linney) and Alice (Jessica Hecht). Through their discourse, we learn how they established a close friendship over a summer which gradually fades into memories when Diane moves away a few years later. If not for the brilliant, authentic performances by Linney and Hecht, and the enlightened direction by Sullivan, one might think that “the dramatic event” that supposedly initiates the conflict never occurs. Nor does the conflict occur manifestly. However, the performances and direction overcome the lack of theatricality, and make Summer, 1976 interesting enough thematically to put this on one’s radar to see.
One of the key themes that playwright David Auburn (Proof) explores in Summer, 1976, is how the right connections, though brief in the span of a lifetime, may vitally change one’s development and help individuals evolve in a direction they might never have taken without such influence. Diane and Alice become friends who, for no particular reason, share their memories revealing this thematic point in this stylized storytelling that alternates back and forth from Diane and Alice as each reflects and remembers. Through their perspectives as reliable/unreliable narrators, they discuss themselves and each other, sometimes offering conflicting details, leaving us to decide for ourselves who is the more accurate storyteller, if it even matters. During the course of their reveries, we note there are more similarities than differences between them, if we carefully tease out the deeper levels in their personalities.
Superficially, Diane has an immaculate house and is a foodie, with some quirky lapses in her perfection. Interestingly, she is unconventional in one regard. She carelessly becomes pregnant having a fling with a man who wasn’t “all that,” and who she dismisses from her life so she can raise her daughter alone. She doesn’t give much thought that Gretchen might need a father, but is confident within herself not to be desperate for a man at her side. which would cause more stress and complication. Besides, Diane has enough inherited money to raise her without worries and continue with a quasi-serious art career which Alice encourages.
Alice points out that Diane’s work reminds her of Paul Klee’s. Diane confesses that she used to be influenced by Klee, but has moved on. Diane never finishes her art pieces, a revelation which Diane eventually confides to us and discusses with Alice. For her part Alice doesn’t think Diane’s art is very good, precisely because they are unfinished. We learn this through Alice’s commentary after Diane makes various disclosures.
Alice contrasts with Diane. Her housekeeping is messy. None of the furniture matches and she isn’t a foodie or an excellent chef as Diane is. Also, Alice is a laid back housewife who helps husband Doug, He doesn’t make much money as a college professor and their lifestyle reveals it. In those days women could still live (not comfortably) on one salary. Doug and Alice manage, though Diane notes that they don’t have style, class or much dynamism. Ironically, staying at home doesn’t encourage Alice to be a superior housewife or foodie. What she does all day is take care of her daughter and Doug, read and clean up the house as best as possible, when it moves her .
These superficial differences would stand in the way of their becoming best friends, if their daughters were not thrown together at the beginning of the summer. Because their daughters adore one another and beg Diane and Alice for play dates, the mothers reluctantly get together to please Gretchen and Holly. It is during these hot days of summer, Diane and Alice move beyond the surface to reveal deeper elements about themselves and their circumstances to forge a beneficial relationship.
Auburn uses narration and the women’s solo reveries to reveal their lives. However, it is the nuanced performances and portrayals by Linney and Hecht that elevate this play and make us interested in these two women, who live unadventurous outer lives. The actors land on the humor of their confessions and judgmental criticism (only given to the audience) about each other. It is only when the women take day trips, the first to an antique store where Diane buys Alice a Bauhaus desk, that their relationship takes off. Afterward, we note that there is a soulful simpatico that they seem to have with each other that transcends their differences.
That soulfulness is brought to the fore during two crucial events that Linney’s Diane and Hecht’s Alice reflect upon. During one summer day Diane has a wicked migraine. Alice lovingly nurtures her and gives her time generously, as Diane attempts to overcome the waves of pain. In supervising the situation while Diane writhes in pain, Alice even allows Gretchen to watch the TV channels Diane doesn’t permit normally. However, this situation warrants it because, as Diane suggests, she can’t deal with her daughter and a migraine at the same time. In Diane’s perspective, Alice’s comfort and care saves her life and the migraine goes away the next day. However, a thread has been woven between the two women that never dissolves, despite their not keeping up the relationship in later years.
Diane helps Alice when she has an argument with Doug that blows up into a full on discussion about divorce. Alice takes Holly and seeks solace from Diane, who readily gives it and comforts her. Diane always thought Doug boring and she encourages Alice to consider other possibilities. Even when Alice resolves to herself emotionally that she and Doug can work out their marriage, Diane offers her place to stay to regroup. This is an offer that later could have become a living arrangement, however, Alice is faithful to Doug and never takes her up on it.
Another theme that comes up when Alice stays the night with Diane is happiness. Diane asks Alice if she is happy, but Alice is more concerned with “keeping up appearances” and trying to make the marriage work after Doug tells Alice he “can’t do this any more.” The idea that people can’t make people happy and rarely does anyone find sustained happiness is something Alice considers as a result of her conversation with Diane that evening. Certainly, it influences Alice in her relationship with Doug, and they eventually divorce in 1978, after Diane moves away.
During the summer and their weekly dinners in the fall, they gradually see each other less and less during 1977 because Alice is engrossed with saving her marriage. However, Diane’s wisdom helps Alice.
At one point Diane lightly suggests they should just travel together and have adventures. Alice’s traditionalism and conventionalism won’t permit it. It is as if Diane intuits Alice and Doug’s marriage will end, but Alice is not ready to admit it. For Holly’s sake she must go through the arduous process of salvage that is fruitless anyway. The possibilities of their close friendship remaining and becoming something more becomes swallowed up in Alice’s conservatism and her fear about leaving Doug. Her inner conflict prevents her from considering other possibilities and freeing herself. Ironically, by the time Alice and Doug divorce and she is free, Diane has left.
Almost a decade later, both women are in New York City. When Alice sees the banner featuring Diane’s works on exhibit, she goes inside the gallery and they meet and discuss how their circumstances have changed. Alice is a middle school English teacher. Diane has become a professional artist who finally finishes her work. When they say their farewells and Alice expresses that she misses Diane and gives her a hug, Diane’s response is “matter-of-fact,” and distant. She reveals to the audience that Gretchen has moved back in with her, has a drug dependency and perhaps made a suicide attempt. She reveals none of this to Alice which is unclear why. When considering if she misses Alice, she reminisces that they were close only for that summer and that is why they drifted apart completely when Diana left and Alice divorced in 1978. Diana even suggests that perhaps it is the memories that she misses.
The final meeting and hand off are fascinating because we note that Diane dismisses Alice, yet gives herself away when she says that Alice is the only one she sends her “art cards” to annually for a decade then stops. Alice loves them and assumes she sends them to everyone, but never replies back. That Diane only sent them to her is momentous. The relationship was important to her for her artistic development. Furthermore, considering Diane and Alice have no partnerships, though Alice admits there were men, but nothing spectacular, we are left wondering that perhaps in a time when the culture wasn’t as oppressive for female-female relationships, they might have had a deep and abiding love. By the play’s end, we understand that their candle of friendship may have nearly blown out, nevertheless they have contributed to each other’s lives and careers beyond measure. Perhaps, it may be rekindled again if one of them takes the step forward.
Summer, 1976 occurs in the undercurrents, the aside comments to the audience, and the subtext. There are the nuanced perspectives and the unspoken spoken. Nothing is manifest. Sullivan’s superb direction and the stellar Linney and Hecht fascinate, in this character study of two women who subtly influence each other to evolve and grow. One day when they are ready, they may possibly reaffirm their connection in the future after their New York meeting. The rest is uncertain as is true to life.
The scenic design (John Lee Beatty) is a minimalist latticed backdrop through which Japhy Weideman’s lighting design flips on the turn of events in their storytelling with beautiful hues. Linda Cho’s costume design is aptly pegged to the characters and Auburn’s characterization. Kudos to Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design, Hana S. Kim’s projection design and Greg Pliska’s original music which elucidates Sullivan’s stylized vision.
Summer, 1976 runs with no intermission, but Linney and Hecht with prodigious authenticity keep the audience rapt and the time becomes transcendent. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2022-23-season/summer-1976/