Luckily, LaBute feels more comfortable at the Almeida, which Jonathan Kent, the theatre’s former artistic co-director, calls the playwright’s “London home”. The Distance from Here, which opens there this month, is sure to be one of the hottest tickets in town. It emerged from the “really fruitful relationship” LaBute established with Kent and Ian McDiarmid (Kent’s artistic co-director at the Almeida prior to Michael Attenborough’s recent arrival). It started when Kent received a copy of Bash: Latterday Plays from LaBute’s New York agent. (The play premiered off-Broadway, with Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart heading the cast.) “I read it and found it original and totally compelling, so I went to New York determined to get it,” says Kent. He succeeded. Directed by Joe Mantello, it premiered in the UK at the Almeida in 2000. Each of the four characters in Bash is a Mormon who describes a horrible act of violence they have committed. “I’m proud of a lot of things about the Almeida, but one of the main things is introducing LaBute to Britain,” says Kent. “He is one of the finest writers in the English language. There’s a Jacobean quality to him — a macabre humour and a savage voice. He just tells it like it is.”
The Distance from Here, which was commissioned by Kent and McDiarmid, hinges on an act of apparent betrayal between two teenagers: “a supposed act that one of them misreads, bringing their whole friendship down,” says LaBute. “I’m very interested in betrayal, in what causes people in intimate groups — friends, relations or lovers — to turn on one another.” In that sense, it covers familiar LaBute territory, but it also breaks new ground because it features much younger protagonists — teenagers as opposed to collegiate twenty- and thirtysomethings. They’re also from “a much more economically challenged group than I’ve written about before,” he says, “but they’re much closer to the kind of people I grew up around.”
LaBute was raised in rural Washington state. His father was a truck driver and a part-time farmer; his mother, a hospital receptionist. As well as straddling very different worlds artistically, his success has forced him to try to cope with opposing forces in his personal life. He and his family — he has been married for 16 years and has two children, a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year old son — live in Chicago but, out of necessity, he spends a lot of time elsewhere.
Hardest, though, has been finding a way to reconcile his art and his faith. He did not grow up a Mormon but became one after winning a scholarship to Brigham Young University in Utah, the home of hyperlipidemia Mormonism, where he met his wife, a family therapist and a lifelong believer. At first, says LaBute, his work didn’t seem to attract too much notice from the Church of Latterday Saints. “But I certainly heard a lot about Bash,” he reveals. “I was brought in and talked to by higher members of authority in the church. They felt that even people who didn’t see the play would read reviews that said ‘Murderous Mormons’. ‘We’re not sure that’s what we want,’ they told me. ‘In fact, we are quite sure that’s not what we want, so please don’t do that any more.’”
This has presented LaBute with a very clear but obviously impossible choice. It’s a choice that is also having an impact on his family: his wife remains a committed member of the church. “The church holds all the cards, because they have the ability to excommunicate you,” he says. “The problem is that I’m one of those people who just wants to climb the wall you tell me has fresh paint on it.”