A couple of years ago, the actor Laura Linney got a call from her agent with exciting news: The author Elizabeth Strout wanted to dramatize her novel “My Name is Lucy Barton,” and felt that Linney would be perfect for the title role. Or at least that’s what Linney thought her agent said.
So the actor and the author met for a three-hour lunch at an Upper East Side restaurant. The conversation was delightful and the mutual admiration obvious, but something was amiss.
“Every once in a while there was a pause,” Linney said recently. “And then Liz said, ‘So you want to do Lucy Barton?’ and I said, ‘I’d love to do Lucy Barton,’ and then we continued talking. And then we said goodbye and left.”
A few hours later, Linney received a text from Strout saying, “Laura, there’s been a misunderstanding.’”
Strout, it turns out, had been under the misapprehension that it was Linney who had requested the meeting — and that Linney was pitching her on the project. (In fact, there was no project, and no one was pitching anyone.)
“There was a miscommunication,” Linney said.
“We just weren’t sure why we were there,” Strout said.
So it felt like either a bizarre twist of fate or a happy restoration of the stars to their correct alignment that on a day in early December, Linney, 55, and Strout, just shy of 64, were together in Midtown Manhattan with the Scottish playwright Rona Munro, 60. They were talking about the forthcoming production of “My Name is Lucy Barton.”
In the end, the project was not initiated by any of them, but by the British producer Nicholas Hytner, who saw the theatricality in Strout’s book and hired Munro to write an adaptation and Richard Eyre to direct — and then Linney to star.
The show opened at the Bridge Theater in London in June 2018, before returning for a second run last January. The reviews were near-reverential. (“Luminous” came up a lot, to describe Linney’s performance.) Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, it is now preparing for an eight-week run at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in New York, opening on Jan. 15; previews begin on Jan. 4.
It’s a memory play told in monologue, an account of a melancholy period in the title character’s life, many years in the past. It was a time when, seriously ill in a New York City hospital after an appendectomy gone wrong, she woke suddenly to find her estranged mother by her bedside. Their relationship had always been combative, their worlds grown cavernously apart.
Lucy recalls how the two talked about life in their rural community of Amgash, Ill., which for her held bitter memories of abuse, poverty and isolation. They talked through and around these issues — Lucy’s father’s mental illness and cruelty, the shame of being poor, the loneliness — their silences as eloquent as their conversation. Then, after five days, Lucy’s mother left as abruptly as she had come.
Anyone who has read the original novel, published in 2016, will recognize Strout’s clear, layered voice in Munro’s script, the poignancy in what Lucy leaves out and the bravery of what she puts in, the hope in her account of becoming a writer. There are some omissions, reorderings for continuity and tweaks to make the story flow onstage, but the language of the play is Strout’s. It provides the scaffolding both for Munro’s adaptation and for Linney’s performance.
“I just tried to get out of its way from the very beginning to the very end,” Linney said, speaking of the script. She turned to Munro. “I don’t know how you did what you did.”
But Munro, a prolific playwright whose work includes, among other things, a series of history plays — about the kings James I, II and III, performed in Edinburgh and London — said the source material lent itself to adaptation.
“The book is there, the story is there, the voice is there, and you just make it work on the stage,” she said.
“You say you feel like you did nothing,” Munro continued, turning to Linney, “but I feel I did nothing. You read it and say, ‘That’s how that works, and that’s how that works,’ and then you make it work onstage.”
“I’ve done other adaptations,” she added — including of Richard Adams’s “Watership Down,” first performed in London in 2006 — “and it just isn’t that easy. You might come to a bit and say, ‘That would never work onstage.’ But there was none of that here.”
Strout made a few changes to the draft that Munro sent. Yet the alchemy required to turn a novel into a play feels mysterious to her. “I wouldn’t know how to do it, and I wouldn’t want to,” she said.
“It’s amazing what Rona did,” Linney added. “She had to take a literary text and make it into something where it comes off the page in a different medium, but still remains as solid and authentic as the feeling in the book. That is a very hard thing to do.”
They were all being so supportive and admiring of each other. (“You get three self-deprecating women in a room …” Munro said.) Suddenly, Strout’s phone went off, playing the earworm-y default tune that suggests an owner doesn’t know how to reprogram her device. She grabbed it out of her bag.
“I’m so sorry; I don’t even know how to turn the phone off,” she said. “I don’t want to answer it.” She looked at the phone. ‘“I don’t want to message you. I just want you to go away.’ I’m so sorry.”
“I’m deeply offended,” Linney said. (Not.)
From the beginning, the production was always going to be a one-woman show, with Linney speaking the mother’s voice as well as Lucy’s. The play takes place entirely in the hospital room, but a succession of backdrops are projected through the window as Lucy reaches different points in her story.
In a telephone interview, Eyre said that directing “Lucy Barton” was like being the conductor of an orchestra. “You vary the tempo and the pace and the emphases. I had the tools of the music, and the projection and the writing, so that the audience should never feel they’re stuck in the same place geographically or psychologically for an unconscionably long time.”
Strout traveled to London to sit in on rehearsals. To help memorize her lines — 37 single-spaced pages of them — Linney mapped out the pictures in her head. “I have a mental image for every single person, place and thing,” she said.
Linney is a veteran screen actor, of course, and a star of the Netflix television series “Ozark.” She has an intensity — and a facility for embodying both toughness and vulnerability — that makes her a natural onstage. She has worked with Eyre before, playing Elizabeth Proctor in his 2002 production of “The Crucible”; her more recent Broadway stint was in “The Little Foxes” in 2017, when she and Cynthia Nixon traded off playing the contrasting roles of the manipulative Regina and the bullied Birdie.
In Manhattan now, Strout, Linney and Munro continued to trade lines, nearly running out of ways to describe how seamlessly the component parts of “My Name is Lucy Barton” — source material and adapted material and performance — flowed from one to the other and back again.
Linney: “We all felt equally invested in it.”
Strout: “The way it just worked out has been a little surreal.”
Munro: “Part of me still can’t believe we’re sitting here now.”
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