Max (Lydia Gaston) is a sweet, hard-working college professor who has known her share of pain and loss. The play that revolves around her, If Truth Be Known, depicts her life at a crucial moment, just as she enters into a relationship with an enigmatic lawyer named Philip (James Patrick Earley). Like its protagonist, the play is honest and has good intentions. But structurally and thematically, Truth comes off like an unfinished draft that one of Max's students might hand in to her. Truth is clearly a labor of love for its playwright, Judi L. Komaki. A third-generation Asian-American and a psychology professor who specializes in workplace discrimination, Komaki has fashioned a play that questions whether love is strong enough to break through one's personal demons.
Presented by Blue Heron Theater at the ArcLight Theater and directed by Christine Simpson, Truth covers a year in which Max, a divorced Japanese-American psychologist, weathers a turbulent relationship with Philip. Both are divorced. He has a daughter from a previous marriage, while Max has no children, and her Norwegian ex-husband Olaf has since remarried. Komaki chose to show mostly the lows in this beginning relationship as Philip, a Vietnam veteran, struggles to commit and occasionally shows symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Max shares her love woes with two relatives: her Aunt Jane (Constance Boardman, but played by Simpson at the performance I saw) and her conservative mother, Mrs. Ota (Bea Soong), who periodically drop in over the course of the year and alternately soothe and antagonize her. Soong is believable in her role, but underutilized. Max's mother serves as a red herring, putting forth issues about history and assimilation that belong in a separate play altogether.
Jane, meanwhile, is a clinical psychology graduate student who works with veterans. Max and Jane also share a deeper bond. They were both engaged to white men whose parents disapproved of them, but Olaf fought for Max whereas Jane's fiancé dumped her after his parents refused to speak to her.
One of the piece's main problems is its excessive transparency. The audience understands the main trouble between Philip and Max from the outset, but Komaki spends the duration of this intermissionless, hour-and-a-half show building up to it. It doesn't take a sleuth to figure out that Philip's problem is that Max's Japanese-American features remind him of the many Vietnamese people he killed years ago during the war.
The problem seems superficial, but if it does represent a deal breaker for Max and Philip, it would be addressed early on in their relationship. If Komaki is to continue working on Truth, I'd suggest a first act in which Max arrives at this conclusion, followed by a second act in which she and Philip try to move beyond his difficulty.
Komaki also underlines the point by having Jane explicitly spell out the real-life problems experienced by Maya Lin, the undergraduate student who unanimously won the contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (where Truth takes place), only to face opposition when people discovered she was Asian.
This allusion is welcome, but it comes off as clumsy, and it is but one instance in which Komaki's characters simply explain away various matters, including Japanese internment camps during World War II, the concept of industrial psychology, and even how to mix a proper screwdriver cocktail. (Part of the problem may have been Simpson's filling in as Jane. Though she had a script onstage, she sometimes tried to recite her lines, to halting effect.) Simpson's direction is graceful, but it cannot compensate for the fact that there are too many scenes that do nothing to further the play's action.
Meanwhile, Komaki leaves other matters unanswered. Though Max and Philip are not intimate until we see them, they have clearly known each other for some time and should be beyond the getting to know you stage. What exactly do they talk about when we don't see them? Also, if Mrs. Ota has never visited Washington until the period of the play, why does she suddenly visit multiple times? And how many times does Jane sweep into town? Still, Gaston is a very natural presence as Max and helps glide Truth along with her pleasant demeanor.
The true revelation is Earley, who is sensational in an anguished role. This is especially impressive given that he must recount many of the trying moments in Philip's life rather than acting them out. This is not a role any actor could step into; Philip has to be charismatic yet off-putting, troubled yet calming, confused yet also confident, and Earley manages to communicate all of those shadings. Czerton Lim's set should also be noted, as it perfectly evokes a middle-class apartment.
The truth in all things should be known, and Komaki asks some important, sensitive questions. But she needs to answer them as well.