By Neil LaBute
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Mrs. Johnson muses that the role of a teacher– a high school English and Drama teacher at an unnamed public school at a non-specific time – is to provide answers to students’ questions. Whether the answers are right or wrong matters not, she ponders. What matters is grappling with the issue and discovering the truth – whatever that might be. “All the Ways to Say I Love You” begins with this protagonist rehearsing a question one of her students once asked, “How much does a lie weigh?” It is the “answer” to that intriguing question that is the subject of Mr. LaBute’s engaging new play.
The audience learns early on in the play that Mrs. Johnson had an illicit affair with one of her second year senior boys who was struggling with personal problems including multiple divorces. Tommy seems to initiate the tryst in a counseling session in the teacher’s office. Mrs. Johnson does not object and instead rushes headlong in to an extended and passionate sexual affair with the boy. LaBute’s play discloses the teacher’s remembrances of her relationship with her student savoring each memory with the zest of an overzealous food critic and the result is pure genius.
That said, Mr. LaBute’s play begs for a striking performance and it receives one in the brilliant and emotionally exhausting performance of Judith Light as the high school English and Drama teacher Mrs. Johnson. Under Leigh Silverman’s astute direction, Ms. Light gives her character’s infatuation with Tommy a remarkable level of authenticity and honesty. As she peels away the layers of Mrs. Johnson’s complex – and often convoluted – motivation for loving Tommy and being loved by him, Ms. Light spares nothing to disclose the depth of her character’s deep longing for connection as well as the perhaps morally ambiguous need for revenge. There is not a wasted movement in Judith Light’s action nor an unnecessary amplified outburst in the thunderous claps of grief and sadness that erupt from this actor’s soulful bravura performance.
Where Mrs. Johnson is stationed precisely while making her riveting confession is questionable. It would appear she is “in” her office – the meticulously designed high school office that shouts “real:” the cinder block wall, the blinds to cover the frosted windows, the curriculum binders, even the “Apple for the Teacher” distributed by Unions to their teacher members. But she could be anywhere. Rachel Hauck’s set design and Matt Frey’s lighting serve to support Ms. Light’s performance and enhance the convention that this cinderblock confessional is without time and place – there are no hands on the office clock. Time does not define the borders of remorse.
Mr. LaBute does not intend to write a “who done it” play. Many have missed this important point. Of course the audience is one step ahead of the revelations Mrs. Johnson provides in her confessional to the audience. Any “priest” (the audience is confessor and, if it chooses, the grantor or absolution) worthy of his/her salt knows well where a penitent’s confession is going and knows – in the convolutions of the confession – the truth will emerge. That truth can be as simple as a “light lie” like a harmless prevarication or as complex as the “heavy lie” that haunts Mrs. Johnson’s every moment.
Folded into the matrix of revelations and confessions are Mrs. Johnson’s impressive collection of ways to say, “I love you.” This is a collection that contains the canon of typical “ways” as well as ways that challenge the meaning of love itself. Mr. LaBute’s play is made more exemplary by the performance given by Judith Light and should not be missed. The audience will discover just how much a lie weighs.