Summer 1976 – Sympathetic and Real
Ohio academia 1976. Diana (Laura Linney) is an art teacher with style and a need for order; a social snob. She has a five year old daughter named Gretchen. Alice (Jessica Hecht), the wife of a professor anxious for tenure, is sweet, friendly, and something of a hippie. Her five year old is called Holly. Diana has family money. Alice and her family scrape by. The women immediately dislike each other.
When Alice’s husband Doug concocts a scheme of paper shares in exchange for babysitting within the community of young faculty, Diana and Alice are thrown together. Much to their chagrin, the little girls become immediate besties. Despite her conservative shell, Diana is a single mother. Impregnated in the course of 2 ½ dates with “a deeply not bright glass blower,” she chose to raise Gretchen alone. Alice, who in Diana’s eyes, “lives like a 50s housewife,” does what’s expected of her, but is not as initially assumed, stupid. Diana disdains Alice’s reading matter. Alice bristles at Diana’s use of words like jejune (devoid of significance or interest).
Laura Linney (Diana), Jessica Hecht (Alice)
One evening watching the girls play, Alice pulls out a joint. Just to show she’s no square, Diana bogarts it. They find themselves high, raiding Diana’s refrigerator of gourmet leftovers and really talking. Linney/Diana sits not only with her legs crossed, but tightly against one another. Hecht/Alice is physically wide open and freely gestures. Both address us as well as each other.
Over the course of the summer though, differences abound, the two find they compliment and grow dependent on one another. Diana feels Doug is “drab,” but allows that if her friend is happy…Alice discovers Diana misrepresented herself, but cares enough to let it pass. When Diana is incapacitated, Alice steps up. Diana is shocked at the extent of attention and compassion.
An unsolicited manipulation concerning shares causes a rift that threatens Alice’s home. Expecting judgment, she pulls away from Diana. The friendship frays and dissolves. Years later they meet. Nothing neatly ties up. Things are left unsaid. It’s realistic and more satisfying for lack of a rosey ending.
Playwright David Auburn explores the emotional clockworks of characters with a keen eye and a subtle hand. Recognizable situations are made intriguing by distinctive details and occasional misdirection, keeping the play from sliding into cliché. We’re captivated by these two credible women and their tandem passage through the years.
Jessica Hecht (Alice, Laura Linney (Diana)
In my book, director Daniel Sullivan can do anything, but particularly excels when neither plot nor characters are flashy. He treats humanity with curiosity, affection and respect, grounding everything we see onstage. In this production, manifest with no fuss, Diana morphs into Alice’s husband Doug and Alice into one of their daughters for several exchanges. Expression is low key while important. Intermittent lack of a fourth wall is seamless.
Both actresses give a master class in listening. It’s as if the play was written specifically for them. Laura Linney’s skill with sarcasm and reserve are qualities she’s asked to tap into again and again. Jessica Hecht’s somewhat wafting presence and stop-start speech pattern are often reasons a role finds her. The ladies step into Diana and Alice as if favorite coats.
John Lee Beatty’s puzzling set looks like an office. The textured wall becomes translucent to show trees. Some have said the pattern is a nod to the artist Paul Klee who features in the play. I find it an odd choice for narrative.
Linda Cho costumes each character in an extension of her personality and the era. Particularly important to a piece with episodic framing, Japhy Weidman’s lighting, Greg Pliska’s music and Jill BD Du Boff’s sound design take us atmospherically from one to another.
Photos by Jeremy Daniels
Manhattan Theatre Club presets
Summer 1976 by David Auburn
Featuring Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Extended through June 10, 2023