by Brian Scott Lipton
“What is the weight of a lie?” These initially puzzling and undeniably provocative words, the first ones spoken by one Mrs. Johnson in “All The Ways to Say I Love You,” should be even a novice theatergoer’s first clue that the teacher we see before us standing in a dingy brick-walled office (on the stage of the Lucile Lortel Theatre) is probably not as mild-mannered as she appears. And for the more experienced theatergoer, the fact that Mrs. Johnson is a creation of Neil LaBute, one of America’s foremost creators of complex, morally challenged people should be proof positive that, in Mrs. Johnson’s case, there will be more than meets the initial eye.
How much more, you wonder? I will tell you that Mrs. Johnson answers her own question by the end of her 60-minute monologue-cum-confession, and that answer gives neither the teller or listener any great satisfaction. I will also tell you that I suspect a few veterans of Mr. LaBute plays, with their now famous (or in some circles, infamous) “aha” plot twists, might even guess that answer (more or less) before he reveals it. Otherwise, my reviewer’s lips are sealed, since the less you know walking into the play, the fuller the experience is.
Actually, all you really need to know is that Mrs. Johnson is being portrayed by Judith Light, which is basically as good as it gets. Not only does this incredibly talented actress have the technique to command our attention so it never wavers (which is important as LaBute trickles out some key details of this story at unexpected moments), but she skillfully navigates even the trickiest and sometimes improbable turns of emotions, breaking down in a literal instant or letting out a near primal-scream. (Light’s early work on the daytime drama “One Life To Live,” for which she deservedly won back-to-back Emmy Awards, serves her unusually well here.)
Mrs. Johnson never flinches from admitting the deep flaws in the choices she’s made, and Light never once signals the audience that she is judging her character, or worse yet, trying to separate herself from her onstage alter ego. What we are watching is an ultimate act of commitment by a performer, one that should hopefully be remembered many months from now when awards season is in full swing.
Kudos certainly go to the director, Leigh Silverman, for her seemingly hidden but obviously vital role in these proceedings. Yet, it’s also a tribute to Light’s innate warmth that Mrs. Johnson comes off as far less of a monster than she might have in a colder performer’s hands. And, most importantly, in LaBute’s writing, there is actually compassion for this woman, something not always evident in his previous work. He may not have found a new way to say “I love you,” but in his writing, he has discovered the words to say “I understand.”
All the Ways to Say I Love You. Extended Through October 16, presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street). Call 212-352-3101 for tickets.
Photos: Joan Marcus