What She Did For Love

Theater Review: All the Ways to Say I Love You
written by Neil Labute, directed by Leigh Silverman, starring Judith Light

As the house fades to darkness in the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Judith Light seems to bring up the stage lights as she makes her entrance. She crosses down center and stands absolutely still for a moment. She is pensive, oblivious to the applause from the audience who, having not yet met the character, cheer for the star they recognize. She waits for a beat before she walks to Stage Left and slowly crosses back to Stage Right, each time stopping to scrutinize the first few rows of the audience, clearly looking for “someone” to talk to.  Judith Light disappears, and her character Mrs. Johnson launches  into the monolog that is All the Ways to Say I Love You.  The result is a 90-minute stream-of-consciousness outpouring, the unpacking of personal history and emotion by Mrs. Johnson, a woman who has lost herself in the jumbled morass of others’ expectations and her own passions.  

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Judith Light as Mrs. Johnson, in The MCC Theater Production of Neil LaBute’s All the Ways to Say I Love You, directed by Leigh Silverman, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 141 Christopher Street, NYC. (Photo by @JoanMarcus)

The experience of following the Mrs. Johnson’s narrative, deftly written by Neil LaBute,  is something like being on multiple amusements at a fun park, riding them in such quick succession that there is no way to regain composure.  Mrs. Johnson recounts her life, breathlessly purging herself in chilling, even sometimes disgustingly vivid detail, leaving the audience as winded as she is.  Even the silences, the long pregnant silences, don’t enable her to breathe.  She is thinking, feeling, processing, and the effort of it exhausts us as it seems to deplete her.  But then she rallies, and her energy seems boundless, as she drags us into yet another corner of Mrs. Johnson’s past.

Light’s commitment to her character is absolute, unflinching.  She introduces herself at the top of the play as a high school English and drama teacher doubling occasionally as a guidance counselor, who has perhaps given her life to her profession while withholding too much from her marriage.  Allowing herself some self-deprecation, she amuses herself with her witticisms, even as she reveals, in the first few moments, that this will be the story of her relationship to a whopper of a falsehood.

“What is the weight of a lie?” she says a student once asked her, and though she goes on to say that she was unable to answer the question then, there is no doubt that the play is about to provide one.  Over the next 90 minutes, in fact, she peels back the layers of linen that shroud her lie, laying all its harrowing consequences bare and judging herself guilty. She has sentenced herself to a life of misery.

LaBute’s writing draws the audience into the judgmentalism of the moment, so much so that they are left with a sense of a larger crime even than the one to which Mrs. Johnson admits.

“She’s a pedophile,” I heard a woman scoff as she jumped to her feet to join the standing ovation at play’s end.  “I don’t understand why I am so enthusiastic.  I’m applauding a blood-sucking pedophile.”

In truth, it’s a trap LaBute has set most effectively. From the start, Mrs. Johnson makes it clear that she has indeed broken the laws of all that is holy to any sentient being and has had a prolonged affair with a student, but she has repeatedly mitigated that pronouncement by emphasizing that she did so with “a second year senior,” meaning a 19- or 20-year-old, clearly someone past the age of consent.  There is no pedophilia.

“He’s a rapist,” says the woman’s companion.  “I should hate her.  Why don’t I?”  Perhaps, I think, because there is no rape.  Again, LaBute has muddied the waters with a shadow of doubt; Mrs. Johnson clearly states that it was the boy who made the first moves, that it was he who insinuated himself into her life before she chose to allow him access.  It’s a subtle nuance but critical to the character because her little loopholes are the devices that enable her to maintain a modicum of self-respect, and allow her to believe herself a good teacher, a wise counselor, a loving parent with less delusion.

I felt close to this character.  She has, like so many women in my generations, tried to shrink herself to fit the prefab molds she’s been required to fill.  She has sublimated herself to the work that now defines her, but she has received no rewards for her efforts.  And she has fallen into an abyss most sentient adults would have avoided at all cost, has lost herself to the delusion that, having given so much, she deserves to take something for herself.  It’s not entirely her fault, but we will blame her nonetheless. Her Fifteen years in the classroom, teaching English and directing the drama club like Mrs. Johnson, her story resonates in me.  I knew my share of bold boys, those who envisioned themselves men enough to seduce the teacher.  And I knew how tempting some of them could be.  Male entitlement has the potential to beguile and can be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Most of us realize that to give in is idiotic folly, and we never do, but for Mrs. Johnson, the stakes are complicated.

Her husband, a mixed race man, has suffered many hardships for standing out as different in their small town community.  Over and over, she tells us she loves him, she will do anything to save her marriage. He wants children. Desperately, she says.  But no matter how hard they try, they remain childless.  She wants him to excite her, and she longs for him to find her attractive; but as they try more arduously to make a baby, they lose interest in one another, all of which renders her as vulnerable as a woman can be.  That boy is insistent, and he has a hunger for her that is irresistible.

That hers is a terrible mistake, one predicated on a huge fabrication, is undeniable, and she will be punished. Endlessly.  Which, I suppose, is how the women were mollified and convinced not to lynch the actor at the end of the play.

Even as I found Mrs. Johnson a reliable narrator of her tale, I couldn’t help wondering how much of the story lives in the character’s head, how much is the dramatic story she fed herself during times when teaching was, as teaching can be, stultifying, when she felt her creativity drained, and all her efforts were on her students’ or her husband’s or her lover’s behalf.

The silences on stage enhanced my sense of the character inventing herself as she went along.  Long, pregnant silences orchestrate transitions of story, mood, tone; they are silences most actors and directors fear.  Light and Silverman plumb their depths, and in their deafening stillness, we see a woman growing older, fighting the urge to enlarge the truth while persistently diminishing realities. 

So, I am still not sure how much of what Mrs. Johnson remembers is the babbling of a woman descending into old age, seeking comfort in believing that once, even when it was totally inappropriate, she sacrificed herself to love.

A Woman’s Project

I returned to New York City in 2005, long after my “Sell by” date had expired

In 2005, I left the relative comfort of a tremulous marriage and a tumultuous job (drama director/English Teacher) — the details of which are best left to fiction where they will embarrass no one’s children — to pursue my writing career. I knew the transition would not be easy, but having been raised by a Puritan Calvinist father and a mother who’d escaped Europe in 1939, I felt prepared for whatever difficulty might befall me. It seemed that the year’s pay I had vested in my pension along with the portion of my mother’s inheritance that I didn’t give to my children, would, at the very least, get me to a good job in New York, where I would then begin to write in earnest.

New York today is a cleaner, sparklier version of the city I left in my young adulthood; it’s no longer the nurturing artist’s environment I remember from those days. (Photo by Aaron Newman)

It’s a tale, as I think about it, worthy of Flaubert. Except that I was well past young when I ventured out of the provinces into the promise of new life in the city, and I had no idea what incredible bias I would be up against.

In the early days of my wife-and-motherdom, I had taken on a number of jobs (part-time, so long as we could afford to have me home part-time and then full-time as our financial needs grew), had served on boards and managed schedules and even had acted as interim director of a Day School.  I was an inveterate multi-tasker.

As a teacher, in addition to serving as Vice President of the State’s Drama Association and as a member of our NEA (teacher’s union) Negotiations team, et al., I had produced and directed two shows a year for ten years, had run a very successful summer program in one town for 7 then got a grant from the State to operate a Summer Conservatory program in another for two; I had raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and had always brought my programs back to the black. I did my own marketing and publicity, made my own deals with state-wide vendors, hired my own musicians, designers and construction crews. I created dialogue between my students and professional theaters around the country, and I personally arranged at least two annual trips to New York for a performance and a talkback/tour with the cast and crew of the show we saw. For the summer grant program, which required professional theater people to serve in their professional roles as well as to teach, I auditioned, hired and oversaw all manner of talent and crews from New York, provided them with transportation, housing, and meals while I made sure they got paid, and at the same time I produced/directed Sweeney Todd and produced As You Like It in repertory. And in addition to everything else, I had co-authored and produced three short films, two of which had garnered festival prizes

In short, I had taken on many responsibilities — always — and had honed a great many skills. Yet when I began to hunt for jobs in NY, it became quickly apparent that out in the world there are two distinct types for whom professional people have a blanket distrust: older women and teachers. Ooops.

Older women are invisible. They are no longer classifiable. Even though there is a great deal made about the Cougar women men crave, most men don’t even look at most women over 50. Even those who are attractive, fit, vital women get very little attention. And what that means is that women don’t look at them either. Worse, the invisibility somehow makes them less desirable as new hires. Who wants to clutter an office — or, in my case, a theater — with invisible drones? I applied for every possibly suitable job, from education director to personal assistant, posted in America over the course of the two years it took me to realize I was un-hirable. But being over fifty was only part of it.

People in the “real” world believe that teachers go into education because they can’t do. And we all know how easy teaching is! Anyone can do it — so why would you hire someone who “only” knows how to teach? I talked myself hoarse about the various skills I had developed in my various capacities as a “teacher,” but my words fell on deaf ears. One young woman who was interviewing me for a job I could do with my eyes closed effused at me, “Oh, you were a class advisor too? You must love going to proms.”

And the irony was that even for teaching I was now too old to be hired in a new system. When I was shortlisted for a great part-time job in an Alternative High School that would have been perfect for me, the interviewer told me, “I could lose my job for this, but I want to tell you that even though you are my first choice for this position, you won’t get the job.” She went on to tell me that I had “years in”, which required money, and I was no longer “fresh.”

Though guiding is certainly not a dream job, it does pay the cookie bills

So, as my little nest egg began to dwindle — I didn’t fight my husband for what I should have insisted on having after 33 years of marriage, believing I’d find a great job to sustain me very quickly — I took a job in the surreal world of tourism and became a sightseeing guide. Now nearing 65, armed with an arsenal of words, two master’s degrees and a compendium of otherwise useless information collected with my autodidact’s obsession with New York City, wearing my royal blue uniform shirt and a thick coat of sunscreen, I trudge daily down to the place where the tour buses originate. There I endure the abuse by passengers who range from insensitive to moronic, and I allow myself to be ordered around by bosses, many of whom are recently released, convicted felons, and by over-eager ticket sellers, who tend to be newly arrived African immigrants  (priceless few of whom have a shred of empathy for women in general or older women in particular), and then I go home to sleep.

I do this because it allows me every morning to get up before the sun and revel in the knowledge that I have a few hours of precious writing time, and someday soon . . . . well who knows!  I’ve just finished a book, which will be released this month, and I am writing furiously in a way I haven’t since I was a teenager filling journals with self-absorbed ruminations.

I am not alone out here. There are any number of women who have set out to create new lives for themselves, to forge careers in creative endeavors; and I have discovered, after a lifetime of feeling disconnected from women and intimidated by the judgmental, dogged competition friendship with them engendered, that for the first time in my life, I have a true kinship with some of the most remarkable people on the planet. Amazingly, they are women!

It’s been a rough road, and it’s not getting easier any time soon. I know that. I accept it. But I hope to live long enough and to prosper sufficiently to make it easier for someone else. Some day I would dearly love to open a safe house, a home for women like me who have held in their overflowing creativity for too many years and just need a place where they can live and write or paint or study lines or clean their cameras or do whatever they need to do to fulfill the need to DO without fear of eviction and starvation. A fear I carry in my stomach at the end every single month. It’ll be at least a while before I’m where I can even think about making the dream house real. But I want to start the process of providing support right here and right now. In this, my new blog, I will inaugurate a series about some of my most admired, most loved friends, women who, like me, have risked absolute failure in the pursuit of resounding success. A section of this blog will be dedicated to those women who would like to be featured here. That will debut shortly.

My cousin Anna Thea Bogdanovich, one of the women I admire most, seated in a pantheon of creative women at the Museum of Arts and Design

I dedicate my efforts to my daughters and my granddaughters. May they never be invisible. Or disrespected for having lived.