Friday, April 9, 2010

The Language Archive

South Coast Repertory has snagged the world premier of Julia Cho's The Language Archive, and I believe this play is quickly going to be produced everywhere (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has already slated it in its 2011 season), and rightfully so.

The story follows George (played by Leo Marks), a brilliant linguist who desperately fights against time to archive dying languages, who can speak a multitude of languages but who cannot manage to communicate to his wife, Mary (Betsy Brandt). As much as he loves her, he cannot say what she needs to hear, and her constant weeping and mysterious notes leave him completely bewildered. She announces she is leaving him, and he is devastated. And as much as he did not see it coming, he also didn't see that his quirky assistant Emma (a charming Laura Heisler) has fallen desperately in love with him.

As his personal life unravels, George and Emma are working on recording Alta and Resten, the last two speakers of Ellowan, a vaguely Eastern European-ish sounding language. Unfortunately the elderly couple, played with comic brilliance by Linda Gehringer and Tony Amendola, got in a huge fight on the plane ride over from their village and refuse to speak Ellowan until it is resolved. Apparently, English is a language for fighting because everyone knows you can always take it back if it's said in English, but Ellowan is a language reserved for love. As they fight with each other and counsel George in his obvious heartbreak, they create a touching picture of two people in the most real kind of love: A lifetime of two people who bicker and feud but ultimately want nothing more than to spend their entire lives loving and being loved by that one other person.

Gerhinger and Amendola also play a variety of smaller characters, each contributing a small revelation about relationships and our constant struggle to communicate and be understood by the person we love most. After such a smart first act, the second seemed to have a few too many of the usual convenient plot conventions (letters falling from the sky, encounters on a train, characters giving their own epilogues), but those seemed to stand by the wayside of the larger meaning of the play. Communicating what we want and need from love and from each other is its own language, and no matter how proficient we may be in all other linguistic aspects, without that communication, we never fully understand each other.