'The Language Archive'

How did they get the smell of fresh bread into the New Theatre?

That's undeniably part of the charm of OSF's production of Julia Cho's "The Language Archive." It is an engaging play and director Laurie Woolery has beautifully caught its wit and sadness.

"The Language Archive" is a play about communication of the heart — how we achieve it and how we don't. Its protagonist, George (Rex Young) is a linguist whose real passion is for dying and dead languages. He can communicate in many of them. He even knows Esperanto, that made-up language that attempts to bridge the divide between cultures. What George cannot do is communicate his feelings.

Neither can his wife Mary (Kate Mulligan). She may burst into tears while doing the dishes, leave cryptic notes around the house — which she denies writing — but she cannot explain to George why she feels sad and alone in their marriage.

George's lab assistant Emma (Susannah Flood) is virtually mute. While her face, eyes and gestures show clearly her adoration for George, words escape her. She even tries learning Esperanto — maybe they can communicate in a language that is one step removed from reality? But, as her instructor points out, until she can communicate with herself, she won't be able to truly assimilate any other language.

In contrast to George, Mary and Emma is George's latest "project." George has brought over from some obscure Balkan country the last two speakers of Elloway, a language conceived and only spoken in love. Unfortunately, Alta (Judith Delgado) and Resten (Richard Elmore) have been married too long, have too many buried grudges and the airplane ride has released all these demons. They can endlessly bicker in English (her dreadful cooking; his rudeness) because English is the language of anger. But they refuse to speak to each other in Elloway.

If author Cho had taken this extended sitcom, played on the whimsy and the irony of these adorable folks who want nothing more than to express their feelings, and drawn her plot to its logical conclusion, she would have had a truly satisfying play. Unfortunately, she tried for a home run in the second act, somehow trying to make her point transcendental, and the play becomes tedious and much too long.

While the scene with Emma and Esperanto founder Ludwig Zamenhof is cute and the scene on the train with George is poignant, neither scene really accomplishes anything toward resolving these characters' dilemma. And Mary's summation that extreme emotions, grief or love, are really identical is quite unnecessary, not to mention specious. I would suggest that the award-winning playwright do some editing.

It is quite a coup for OSF to get this play. Commissioned by New York's off-Broadway Roundabout Theatre, "The Language Archive" opened at South Coast Repertory in April 2010 and at the Roundabout Theatre in October to rave reviews. It won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Award for the best play written by a woman for the English-speaking theatre.

OSF's production is impeccably staged by scenic designer Christopher Acebo — who knew that bankers' boxes were so versatile? — costume designer Christal Weatherly and lighting designer Geoff Korf. Festival veteran Todd Barton provided the sound design and original music.

And that bread smell? At the beginning of the second act, we learn that Mary, after leaving George, has taken over an artisan bakery. Mary can communicate with bread. It's people she has problems with. Somehow, director Woolery and scenic designer Acebo have absolutely no trouble communicating that to the audience.

"The Language Archive" plays through June 17 in the New Theatre.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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