MTC Celebrates Theatrical Royalty in Summer, 1976

It all started back in the Summer of 1976, in Columbus, Ohio. “I didn’t like her child,” says one mother, layering a different level of disdain on the other, but the connection lingers as these two sit, like the acting royalty they are. They hold court at the end of a long table on a fairly barren set, warmed with the colors of growth and vegetation or cooled by the colorful geometrics of art and literature. Written with a delicate wonder by David Auburn (Proof; Lost Lake), his elegant two-handed play, Summer, 1976slowly unpacks the collision of two maternal forces destined from the first smart lines to become friends, whether they are able to see it coming or not. She’s a free spirit encountering a square, but it’s in the rewinding where we find the reward, and even though Auburn doesn’t manage to emotionally connect us to these two on as deep of a plane as we would like, the overall engagement rings true and honest, and in that coupling, we find compassion.

The “kinda uptight” Diana, played to perfection by Laura Linney (MTC/Broadway’s The Little Foxes) as only she can, sits upright and deliberate, pulling apart her counterpart with a cool detached air of superiority. Hippy chick Alice, deftly portrayed by Jessica Hecht (Broadway’s The Price) is not of a similar breed. Quirky and bohemian, she pushes buttons on the more rigid Diana without even trying, and when she does try, the response is deliciously devious. The two take us through their history, carefully and without hesitation, finding a path that is both unique and compelling while never feeling forced or obvious. Where this will lead us is never given away, but also not teased, making our journey with them delightful without ever being too edgy or tension-filled.

Jessica Hecht (left) and Laura Linney (right) in MTC’s Summer, 1976. Photo by Jeremy Daniel, 2023.

As directed with a simplistic yet generous edge by Daniel Sullivan (MTC/Broadway’s The Nap; Rabbit Hole), their journey rings with an honesty that is almost offputting, but never too much. Together with playwright Auborn, they craft a portrait of friendship that is etched in authentic engagement and sharp insight into the characters of these two very different women. It grows and blossoms with clever twists and turns most beautifully, yet never fails to lose us. The play and these two actors hit their marks expertly on a minimalistic and appropriately naturalistic set designed delicately by John Lee Beatty (Broadway’s Sweat) with detailed costuming by Linda Cho (Broadway’s Take Me Out), subtle lighting by Japhy Weideman (Broadway’s Shucked), stable sound by Jill Bc Du Boff (Broadway’s Derren Brown: Secret), and a gentle projection design by Hana S. Kim (Public’s The Harder They Come).

We live on,” she says knowingly, and Alice and Diana live and emote inside the assumptions of friendship, breathing in and exhaling ideas of one another based on quick, mostly wrong formulations. Their daughters have bonded quickly, but it takes a shared joint moment that surprises for their own attachment to cross the divide. Still, like any relationship, it has some reluctance and disconnection along the pathway. Playing with a touch of the artist Paul Klee whose work floats in the background of their bonding, Summer, 1976 unpacks a very adult connection that reverberates authentically outward, avoiding sentimentality, even when the fantasies of separation intoxicate the air and then evaporate beautifully. “People just aren’t one thing,” notes Alice when Diana makes yet another highbrow assumption based on her friend’s poolside reading choice. But it’s in the gentle breeze that never blows too hard, or dangerously, where this play finds its season. And it is forever pleasant, but not exactly mind-blowing or exhilarating.

Laura Linney (left), Jessica Hecht (right) in Summer, 1976 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
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