Prolific playwright Neil LaBute dissects bad behavior like a child pulling off the wings of a fly. How an insect might act in the throes of painful death while eschewing guilt and retribution suffered by the perpetrator, fascinates this judgmental artist. He sees little good in either morality or people.
Bracketed by the philosophical question of the weight of a lie, All The Ways To Say I Love You, a Hallmark title for a searing play, puts high school English/Drama teacher Mrs. Johnson (30 years on the job) before us as if on trial. We, the audience, act as her conscience or, perhaps, a higher power to whom she explains/ justifies.
One might assume the heroine’s hope is absolution, that paying the price for past actions every day allows her to live with it. LaBute’s characters, however, are not black and white and, though recognizable, rarely likeable. The more probable truth is that had consequences not reared their head in this particularly perverse and painful way, Mrs. Johnson would have been fine with her “sin.” She may just be soliciting empathy.
Tommy came from a divided home. Looking for affection and approbation anywhere he could find it, the student was vulnerable to our heroine’s own repressed needs. She’d been faking with her husband for years. They had no children. “The sex with Tommy was something else. I think most of you will know what I mean when I say wow!.. The things he came up with to do. It was breathtaking.” Visceral excitement, recollection of sensuality and abandon, vibrates. “For a few months, I was in a kind of Heaven…”
Deception came easy. Even when we meet the protagonist years later, having long experienced what may, in fact, be secret punishment, she defiantly has no regrets.
Judith Light’s performance is an extraordinary master class in exacting technique. The actress has given herself up to the role, allowing memory to violently course through her character. It’s as raw a monologue as you may ever have seen. Emotion zigzags riding hairpin turns. Voice, face, and body reflect personal torture. The brief episode in Mrs. Johnson’s life remains a raft in a hellish dreamscape. Ms. Light takes us on the ride.
What might’ve been a tirade emerges a roller-coaster of palpable reactions under the skilled Direction of Leigh Silverman. Harrowing signs of losing grips never sacrifice intellect for feeling. The two ride wrenchingly effective tandem.
Photos by Joan Marcus
MCC Theater presents
All the Ways To Say I Love You by Neil LaBute
With Judith Light
Directed by Leigh Silverman
The Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through October 23, 2016