Rather than a monologue, Rona Munro’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel feels like 90 minutes of epilogue. The wistful tone, the crushing moments of coming to terms with childhood traumas, the goodbyes: it’s like one great coda to a life whose complexity is unpicked and exposed on stage. And it’s utterly riveting.
Three-time Oscar nominee Laura Linney plays Lucy, talking us through a nine-week stretch in hospital. With her husband too afraid of hospitals to visit and her children too young she is completely alone until, unexpectedly, her mother comes to see her – their first connection in years.
In Strout’s clear, crisp turns of phrase Lucy describes the visitation and the trail of memories it unspools, capturing so many of the complexities of being part of a family. Threads of grief weave through the different generations, she shows, and a parent can spend her life correcting for the miseries she felt in childhood, only to inflict entirely different ones on her own children.
Linney’s Lucy seems nervous, almost eager to please. She’s a thrillingly commanding presence, but there’s shyness too as she jitters around the stage, before settling into the story. Throughout the production Linney radiates a lantern-light warmth, rarely letting a small smile slip from her face as she tells her story – that smile a remarkable detail with a significance that’s lightly touched on later in the monologue.
As she recounts, jumping between her childhood and adult life, Linney manages to suspend herself somewhere between an adult and a child; moments of assuredness giving way to the wide-eyed fears of childhood. By the end she has taken complete control of the space, standing front-on to deliver the climax.
What’s more, Linney is essentially playing two characters, since Lucy spends so much time pretending to be her mother. In ‘mother mode’ the Illinois drawl lengthens, the voice becomes shriller, the gestures firm up and stiffen into confidence. It’s extraordinary, the way Linney suddenly flips between these two people.
Richard Eyre’s direction is careful and quiet, favouring calm movements, stillness, and imperceptible fades between scenes rather than sharp transitions, and Bob Crowley takes a similar approach with his crisp set, containing just a hospital bed and a chair. They make for a cold contrast to the thickness and richness of Strout’s language.
The beautiful lighting, designed by Peter Mumford, moves from clinical white lights of a hospital room to deep sunsets, illuminating the recessed squares of Crowley’s design. At any moment the set looks like it could be a painting hanging in the Whitney Museum.
In the mix with so many moments of sadness and regret are devastating acts of kindness, and that is a heart-wringing combination. Eyre, Strout, Munro and Linney summon the sheer and simple force of the monologue to an exquisite end.