We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
“Girls are for devouring” goes the signature line of Lucy Newman-Williams’ new play. But By Tooth or by Tongue devours its audience—with words, great rivers of description that flood you up to your eyeballs. The script is Southern verbal excess at its most unrestrained: It sounds as if Dorothy Allison had made it up in a pickup truck, with Grandpa Faulkner at the wheel and Tennessee Williams riding shotgun.
Despite its big mouth, though, Tooth or Tongue will excite you with ambitious, often thrillingly intelligent theater. And Source Theatre regular Newman-Williams, playing all but one of her menagerie of characters, lays out one of the great local performances of the year. If she’d cut it by half, Tooth or Tongue might be the start of something.
Not just girls, but all the characters in this play have been eaten up—eaten up and broken, their bodies warped by accommodation with the world. In a way, the 17-year-old narrating heroine (Kimberly Gilbert) gets off easy. Sure, she hits a barbed-wire fence after wiping out her motorcycle at 70 mph, leaving a huge red scar slicing across her face like a seam. But the scar also seems to protect her: She’s easily the strongest person in any room.
Lying prone in a hospital bed, the Girl has more than enough magnetism to pull 40-ish nurse Lizzie into her orbit. Lizzie is confident and gorgeous, but she hangs around this teenager, smitten. “There’s lots of reasons people don’t get where they’re going,” she tells the Girl, tenderly applying makeup to the scar. “And most often it’s their own choice.” Recognizing that you even have a choice constitutes the somewhat thin drama of Tooth or Tongue.
When the Girl checks out of the hospital, she makes a beeline for Lizzie’s cottage. Something’s now stirring inside her, and Newman-Williams has her stand at the threshold and catalog everything—the trees, the leaves, her own guts feeling “like Sunday on a Thursday.” For the first time in her life, she can’t control her feelings, her desire, and she’s hiding from it behind language. And although she sounds wise beyond her years, when she and Lizzie finally meet at the screen door (one smelling like bourbon, the other like Juicy Fruit), their age difference becomes shockingly apparent. The smear of Lizzie’s lips against the Girl’s lingers ambiguously, even as the Girl walks away into recovery, twirling her cane.
The Girl doesn’t stick around after that. Instead, she takes up an offer from her lunkish boyfriend, Gabe, to come with him to central Florida and work at the crocodile-show tourist trap his Uncle Cecil runs. Going to central Florida is nearly always a bad idea, and this case confirms it. Cecil’s the kind of guy who has a killing shed out back and says things like “Now, ya know all ’bout that, doncha, girlie?” He has a bit of the plantation overseer in him: a cruelly appraising look and a way of walking as if he might be about to sling his leg over you.
Which is what he does to the Girl. The problem is, she half-assents to it, and she hates herself for it. Standing before Cecil’s motorcycle, she realizes that if she doesn’t steal it and take off, in the morning she’ll have to “make breakfast for the man whose handprint is just now making its way out of the back of [her] neck.” The options she sees on offer to her—whore or Madonna—seem equally unappealing. So she tries to point herself in her own direction.
As the Girl, Gilbert’s task is almost Homeric: she has to memorize skeins and skeins of prose-poetry and then deliver them convincingly. Her voice (intelligent and melodious, slightly drunk on itself) matches the part, as does the hard yet hopeful look on her face. But no one could hold up under the weight of Newman-Williams’ overripe language. It’s never just light outside in Tooth or Tongue, for instance—it’s a “deep whiskey-colored light,” “light the color of apricots,” or “light smutted with pink clouds like blush.” Something called “hungry emptiness” is overtaking people, even when they’re pumping gas. And three adjectives will never do when there’s breath left to tack on a fourth. The onslaught numbs the audience. You start trying to catch the drift of a monologue just so you can stop listening to it.
But Newman-Williams really speaks volumes in her acting. She effortlessly swings through the 10 characters she plays, spinning in a 30-second costume change from Gabe’s sinews and buck teeth to the smoldering Lizzie—a brave face that’s accustomed to disappointment with an Elizabeth Ashley smokiness to her voice. Her Cecil is equally riveting, a mesmerizing snake who’s oiled with sexual menace.
And director Delia Taylor pulls all the strings tightly together in the first act. The two actors seamlessly move from exposition to dialogue, and the story engrosses you as Taylor meshes Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting and Brian Keating’s witty music choices (such as “Que Sera, Sera”) and even Claire Newman-Williams’ rather unevocative backdrop videography. Taylor’s direction takes all the idiosyncratic characters and bodies that Newman-Williams creates and counterpoints them against Gilbert’s Girl in a sophisticated theatrical essay on what it means to be normal. Which, of course, is exactly what the Girl is running away from.
As the Girl finds her way in the second act, though, Tooth or Tongue loses its bite. Without Cecil’s threat, there’s no tension left in the play. The Girl chews up the miles on her stolen Triumph and slides into smugness, feeling her oats like any teenager. And Newman-Williams’ new characters (such as a motel owner with curlers in her hair and the Girl’s miniskirted mother) are caricatures or worse. By the time she introduces the Dumb Boy, a mentally disabled child that the Girl meets at a gas station, you realize that you’re just looking at the fact of her playing all these parts. Even a disappointing encounter with Lizzie doesn’t really dampen the Girl’s spirits. Tooth or Tongue turns out to be a feel-good story that doesn’t feel right.
Newman-Williams should start her rewrite with Lizzie—exploring why she would give up on the promise of the Girl, why she would subsequently run to a man who chronically leaves her. The character has the promise of a fascinatingly complicated history, and yet Newman-Williams doesn’t give us any insight into her. The propriety of an April-August romance like this, which in any other iteration (straight or gay male) would raise red flags, also deserves a proper airing. Mostly, though, she just needs to take out the pruning shears and start hacking away at the wordy underbrush. Unlike its heroine, By Tooth or by Tongue can’t come into its own as written. It has too many best lines, and the prodigiously talented actor who wrote them gives them to somebody else. CP