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‘Summer, 1976’ Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht are Terrific

(L to R): Laura Linney, Jessica Hecht in 'Summer, 1976' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Laura Linney, Jessica Hecht in Summer, 1976 (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

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.

ey (standing), Jessica Hecht (sitting) in 'Summer, 1976' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Laura Linney (standing), Jessica Hecht (sitting) in Summer, 1976 (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

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.

(L to R): Jessica Hecht, Laura Linney in 'Summer, 1976' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Jessica Hecht, Laura Linney in Summer, 1976 (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

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.

(L to R): Laura Linney, Jessica Hecht in 'Summer, 1976' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Laura Linney, Jessica Hecht in Summer, 1976 (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

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

‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ Laura Linney Fuels a Richness of the Titular Character With Nuanced Depth

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

In Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of My Name is Lucy Barton, Rona Munro’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, nothing is obvious. Indeed, a comparison to the novel may be a misdirection from what has been achieved in this sterling production, acted in a solo performance by the unparalleled Laura Linney. Linney flawlessly manifests director Richard Eyre’s vision for the titular character, and in doing so enhances Munro’s fine adaptation and Strout’s incredible, heart-felt characterization.

As the lights dim, we gaze upon the minimalistically staged hospital room whose large 3 D window spreads to almost cover the entire back wall, an indication of its importance to reflect Barton’s memories through three time lenses. Throughout the 90 minute play, projections of location scenes (NYC brownstone, corn/soybean fields, etc.) will splay, each enhancing and signifying Lucy Barton’s life (materially and symbolically).

When, Linney makes her entrance, stage left, her vital presence smashes through the sterility of the room and the possibilities of what being hospitalized portends. Her walk is confident, forthright, determined, with perhaps a hint of ruthlessness (this relates to what a friend told her about her career). And from that moment on, Linney secures our focus with her character’s articulate, well-hewn descriptions. She bewitches us by infusing Lucy Barton’s masterful story-telling with spot-on passion and seemingly open-hearted truthfulness. Our attention remains transfixed, throughout. And, at times, during her intimate, heartbreaking monologue, the audience remains hushed and still, avidly gleaning revelatory peeks into Barton’s miserable childhood of poverty, loneliness and fear, while she grew, like the corn and soybean fields surrounding their ill-kempt, noisome home, into teenage-hood in Amgash, Illinois.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Barton’s story is not particularly exciting or eventful in the “average” way. It begins in the vibrant, present day. The arc of development moves in flashback to the time when Barton was married with two daughters and, after an appendectomy, is weirdly unable to systemically recover her health. Barton’s story-telling is filled with mystery in its exploration of her relationship with her mother. Linney portrays both women and seamlessly steps from present to flashback, clearly designating the time intervals through Eyre’s staging, the mother’s Amgash accent and Munro’s pointed time transitions as Barton recalls or reflects on memories in the present time, then segues to the past for another dip into hope, loneliness and redemption.

Barton’s story is relatable to a cross-section of humanity, even the wealthy who suffer emotional trauma and abuse from parents. Some might argue Lucy Barton’s narrative transcends gender because it’s generalizable to relationships between parents and children, beyond stereotype and myth in the family dynamic. In other words, its sensitive, emotional and human universality appeals. What individual does not feel, if they dare to admit it, that their parents did not give them enough love, understanding, wisdom, material and spiritual protection that they hungered for at various points in their lives? What individual does not feel remorse at not being able to have lived happily, growing up in a “Father Knows Best” loving, emotionally magnanimous family experience? Indeed, how much more duress does one feel if one’s material and emotional well-being was continually jeopardized by parents/siblings, what has been described euphemistically as being a member of a dysfunctional family?

Munro’s adaptation retains Strout’s searing, uber-subtle fervency as Lucy relates “her story,” which we discover is an attempt to expurgate devastating emotional pain to reconcile past memories of dire consequence which she has suppressed and which might haveĀ  killed her, but for her mother’s 5-day visit, when Barton’s hospital stay moved past the normal recuperation period: she can’t eat, has blockages and grows thinner and weaker. Barton’s husband, who has been too traumatized by death and dying in hospitals to visit her regularly, calls her mother who shows up “out-of-the-blue” and sits in a chair, at the foot of the bed eschewing a cot to be with her, 24/7.

It is during this life changing visit, that her mother relates stories about the neighbors or relatives, all of them attached with a negative, inferred lesson critical to Lucy’s life. It is also during this time and in the retelling of “her story” that Lucy recalls memories that are so unendurable, she cannot fully relate the details clearly. Interestingly, her mother also refuses to answer some of Lucy’s questions about the time when her children grew up. Her mother closes her eyes and pretends to sleep so Lucy doesn’t persist. There are some places where both dare not go, perhaps because the emotions are so incredibly raw, they might never recover their balance and attempted “control” over their lives.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Ancillary comments quietly expose a mountain of affection between Lucy and her mother, expressed uneasily by Lucy and in repressed undercurrents by her mother. Indeed, since Lucy’s marriage, they have been estranged. Clearly, though Lucy leaves this unspoken, the home where she grew up is noxious (it smells, it is freezing, it is stinks of loneliness and alienation). She has been relentless about never seeing her parents and gaining success as a writer, until she withers psychically and needs her mother’s love, as imperfect and ill-formed as it is. Her mother puts resentments aside and brings a healing balm; it’s time.

For nine years, her mother and father have never come to Manhattan and she hasn’t been home. Her parents resent that Lucy got a scholarship, went to college to become a writer, got married and left them in the morass of hopelessness and weirdness that they had to confront after she left: another unspoken self-recrimination against her/against them. They can hardly blame her for leaving, but resent her for doing it all the same. Her rejection of what they represent and her identity in their family unit is too much for her to bear. And then, she becomes ill; it is a metaphoric illness, systemic and psychic that requires a “healing touch and kindness” which her doctor delivers assisted by her mom.

Ironically, it is a testament of her mother’s love for her that she drops in (Lucy’s husband paid the plane ticket), despite her fear of flying to be Lucy’s much needed emotional support and prophetess who proclaims that Lucy will live, “though her marriage will have troubles.” A highpoint of reconciliation for her mom is her admission and apology about having to raise her three children under the strains of severe poverty (they eat molasses on bread regularly, can’t afford a warm or clean home, and are too poor for a TV).

Linney portrays her mother, at times humorously, with an Amgash, Illinois accent. Barton moves in “her story” from immediate present which is years after her parents have died, then flashes back as she reflects upon one of the most important moments. Linney’s transition from daughter to mother is seamless. As Barton’s mother she nudges Lucy to affirm her own life, despite the gnawing darkness and despair that threatens to overcome her and despite her material success which is a canard and no cover for the abyss within, unbeknownst to her.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Eyre’s use of lighting (Peter Mumford) his staging and the projections (Luke Halls created the video design), bring in the other-worldly aspect of memory and remind us that Lucy Barton, as solid and stalwart and sincere as she appears to be, is the narrator of her own story. And all solo narrators embellish, exaggerate some details and leave gaping omissions. For all their ability to explain, the emotional content is so laden with stark bleakness, it cannot be accessed easily or articulated. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to do so or maybe never. Linney negotiates this with precision. Thus, the arc of Lucy’s story development as she discusses her relationship with her mother is a shining example of her ability to codify what she can live with (reflected in the hopefulness of the Chrysler Building the hospital window peers out on).

Indeed, Lucy Barton has made the building a beacon of success in her life, up from the oppression of her past, something her mother agrees with. And she has used that and other symbols (projections of corn fields, lightening sky), to manifest her identity as a successful writer who at this juncture is able to confront herself by going public. That is who Lucy Barton wants to be and that’s who she is.

Linney makes this unreliability, this shakiness brilliantly apparent. She allows it to pop up and back. She moderates it, especially when Barton cannot articulate the most traumatic memories of abuse in her past. And it flops back into the story-telling when she heartbreakingly remembers calling for her mom, as her daughter called for her when she saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. It is also apparent when Linney aptly philosophizes as Barton about the statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Sculpture Garden. The statue is of a distressed, starving father and his children. They only see him and are willing to sacrifice their own bodies and feed him to arrest his starvation. So bonded are children with their parents. So entangled will Lucy Barton always be with her mother, father and siblings. Because of them, she is Lucy Barton. Linney present with genius the authenticity of this character and makes it her own.

Kudos to all the creatives who worked on this production and brought it to life. In addition to those already mentioned are Bob Crowley (scenic and ccostume design) and John Leonard (sound design). My Name is Lucy Barton is running in a limited engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (47th Street between Broadway and 8th Ave.) with no intermission until 29 February. It is a must-see for Laura Linney’s amazing portrayal and Eyre’s and Munro’s bringing home Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling novel with grace and power. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

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