As a playwright, words are the tools of Julia Cho’s trade, and she fully embraces the beauty and power of language to craft a work that is poetic, witty, touching, and meaningful in THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE, now in production at Bristol Riverside Theatre. So it’s ironic that George, a linguist and the protagonist of Cho’s bittersweet story, should find himself at a loss for words, both professionally and personally. While striving to preserve the endangered language of a distant world culture, he encounters a refusal to converse in it by the elderly couple Resten and Alta—the subjects of his study and the last two practitioners of their native tongue. Combined with that is a failure to communicate in his relationships at home, with his wife Mary, and at work, with his lab assistant Emma.
The play’s artistry and intelligence elevate it above the ordinary romantic comedy. Written in a rhythmic and lyrical style, Cho’s unique script interweaves direct address with dialogue, intellect with physical action, and the realities of human behavior with dreamlike fantasy sequences, didactic storytelling, symbolism and mythology, to convey a profound parable about our inability to express ourselves with emotional honesty, to expose our vulnerabilities, and to endow the words we struggle with the eloquence of a touch.
Under the masterful direction of Adam Immerwahr, the cast delivers sympathetic performances that are at once lofty and relatable, funny and sad, uplifting and heartrending; they are thoroughly human and multi-dimensional. Irungu Mutu is a revelation as George, the heartbroken scholar who is fluent in countless languages but can’t comprehend the messages the women in his life are sending him. Julianna Zinkel (Mary) and Tiffany Villarin (Emma) are telling embodiments of the age-old tradition of the active versus the contemplative life, and Keith Baker and Jo Twiss bring passion and humor to Resten and Alta, who argue in English—“the language of anger”—rather than defile the sacredness of their indigenous tongue. Baker and Twiss also portray a series of minor international characters with various ethnic accents who advance the plot points (though Twiss’s spurious German pronunciations differ little from the couple’s spot-on Eastern European-style speech).
Jeff Van Velsor’s smart scenic design captures the soaring heights of the titular archive stacked with shelves full of boxes, then easily shifts into the intimate spaces of a living room, bakery, and hospital room, with the presence of a few tables and chairs, and the fluid entry and exit of a bread cart and hospital bed. Paul Kilsdonk’s dramatic lighting gives focus to the characters’ thoughts and interactions, and naturalistic costumes by Kristin Isola define their backgrounds, professions, and personalities. Karen Graybash’s well-modulated sound and evocative sound effects enhance the clarity of the outstanding production and Cho’s exquisite use of language.
[120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, PA] January 26-February 14, 2016; brtstage.org.