My English teacher once admitted every story is a variation of a handful of tired archetypes. "The beauty," she said, "is in a familiar narrative being told in an exciting way."
This was on my mind while watching “All The Ways To Say I Love You” at the Lucille Lortelle theater, thanks to the skills of playwright Neil Labute, director Leigh Silverman, and particularly Judith Light who all deliver us Mrs. Johnson, an English teacher bound by her curiosity of a student’s obtuse question about lying, her intrigue with the fluidity of the truth, and by her burden of transgressions she admits to but can’t in good conscience condemn.
In a few minutes the familiarity of the rather simple story is clear, but malaise has no time to set in thanks to Judith Light’s portrayal. Her seemingly fragile frame is betrayed by a powerful drum beat of a performance, complete with moments of delicate calm interspersed with erratic explosions of movement and force. Her honesty is palpable and often moves faster than she can, resulting in us piecing the story together less from her enthusiasm but in the moments she recoils at simple words spoken before she’s fully ready to meet their emotional weight, leaving us with multiple pregnant pauses and the uneasiness that this teacher, who also acts as the school’s guidance counselor, is as in need of guidance as any of us.
There is an argument that the tone of her performance borders on unmotivated at times. She clenches her hands, clutches her stomach, and bellows air out of her like an animal, and some of these events do more to disrupt the pace than accent a moment, though all I had to do was remember the unpredictability of some of the more colorful teachers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and suddenly these jarring outbursts seemed in the realm of possibility. On a few occasions though even I was thrown off by some of these choices, along with stiff motivations of movement around the small set that lacked the honesty of the rest of her performance.
The claustrophobia of the set is telling, as we are treated to merely a portion of her classroom office lit by a lone ceiling light, and equally sterile office windows covered by blinds, the room cluttered and busy, framed tightly in about half the available space the of the theater which cuts off the proscenium to allow just enough space to let her move, but not enough to let her find comfort for longer than a moment.
It’s hard to imagine this play working without Judith Light. LaBute’s writing is solid and specific as usual, but it’s Judith’s energy that coerces us to listen and her pain that we take with us on the ride home. This story has been told many times, but never quite this way.
Review: Dave Columbo
Photo: Joan Marcus