October 12, 2016

Judith Light Provides the Heart—and the Soul—in "All the Ways to Say I Love You"

Neil LaBute made his name in the '90s by creating narcissistic characters who do mean and horrible things to the other characters in his films and plays. But over the years, this prolific playwright (he's written over two dozen full-length plays, including The Shape of Things, Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty) has mellowed. He's still fascinated by the pain that people inflict on one another but he now also has an appreciation for the pain that causes such behavior and the damage it can wreak on the do-er.

The latter is totally the case in the MCC Theater production of his latest work, All The Ways to Say I Love You, a one-woman show in which Judith Light plays Mrs. Johnson, a married school teacher and guidance counselor who has an affair with one of her students. Alone in her office, designed with depressing authenticity by Rachel Hauck, Mrs. Johnson confides her misdeeds to those of us in the audience at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the show is playing through Oct. 23.

Her story isn't particularly novel. Teacher-student scandals have been steady fodder for tabloids, trashy novels and TV mini-series since Mary Kay Letourneau was sentenced to seven years in prison for sleeping with a 12-year-old student. The two of them got back together after Letourneau finished her sentence and have now been married for 12 years.

But things don't turn out as well for Mrs. Johnson and the success of All The Ways to Say I Love You hinges on the ability of the actor playing her to show her gradual descent from a needy woman who knew at the time that what she was doing was wrong to one who becomes hollowed out by the deed in its aftermath.

It's a tricky challenge: we have to like Mrs. Johnson enough to care about her and yet resist being so seduced that we don't hold her accountable for the choices she makes. And who better to do all of that than the always-remarkable Light? (Click here to read an interview with the actress.)

Under Leigh Silverman's attentive direction, Light delicately peels back the layers of love, lust, desperation and anguish until the emotional viscera of Mrs. Johnson is fully exposed. All the Ways to Say I Love You runs just over an hour but Light packs a lifetime of emotion into it.

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