Julia Cho's play, The Language Archive, is a story about the connection between dying languages and dying love. Despite being linguistic experts, the main characters struggle to communicate their feelings with one another; some even struggle to have feelings at all.
A respected linguist, George (Gabriel Nagy) researches languages that have disappeared or are on the verge of doing so, attempting to record them before they vanish. George tells us that every couple of months, one of the world's 6,500 existing languages dies, and he admits that he feels greater grief over those deaths than the deaths of family members. Language is his passion. It's not only a system that allows us to communicate, but it also helps determine how we think—about love, and community and the rules for living.
Despite being a linguistic expert, George has no idea how to communicate on an emotional level, or even how to have an emotional life. His extensive knowledge of language does nothing to help him connect with his wife, Mary (Leslie J. Miller), or with his associate who seems to be in love with him. He is completely surprised when Mary announces that she is leaving him; he has noticed her constant sadness but doesn't know how to talk to her about it. Knowing his distance is impenetrable, Mary has taken to leaving cryptic notes in his books or tucked inside his slippers.
The play moves back and forth between scenes involving George's research and his clueless attempts to figure out why his wife has left him. Chiefly, he is excited that he has flown in two of the last speakers of Elloway, but they surprise him by railing at each other in English, which they claim is the perfect language for expressing anger. His assistant, Emma (Seonaid Barngrover), has sought the help of a teacher (Peg Peterson) who is trying to help her learn Esperanto—an academically attempted universal language—but the instructor sees that what Emma really needs is instruction about how to communicate love. We also see Mary's reinvention as a baker, as well as a few brief scenes of characters speaking with total strangers at train stations, often connecting more significantly with them than with those they know well.
The Language Archive presents numerous challenges, and Winding Road Theater Ensemble's production, unfortunately, is just not up to them. Several of the characters are not well-conceived nor competently portrayed, and the pacing made the thing feel leaden, bumping along like a flat tire. We witness moments of what might be of great import and vital to Cho's vision, but it's hard to understand how they fit together. In short, the production never quite finds how to translate its story into the language of theater. It never finds a beating heart.
George is such a pivotal role, and although Nagy is earnest, we don't really get a credible character with the depth we need to care about him. His passion for language is cerebral, which is hard to communicate dramatically. Miller is also earnest, but her characterization of Mary really hits just one note. We are sympathetic to her, but her lack of depth and dramatic energy result in a passivity that makes her hard to fully embrace.
Seonaid Barngrover as Emma, George's assistant, also fails to be genuinely convincing. She is smitten with George, although it's completely mystifying why. Toward the end of the play, her character has a moment where she tries to put her story together, but Barngrover fails to evoke an honest depth.
Fortunately, Peg Peterson and Roger Owen lend energy to their well-grounded multiple characters. As Elloway speakers Alta and Resten, they bring welcome comic lightness to the proceedings, as well as solid characterizations. Despite their intense expressions of anger, we believe they truly love each other, especially when Resten falls ill and is hospitalized. Peterson also breathes some vitality into Emma's instructor, and Owen in the brief moments he has as other characters finds a way to make credible sense of them.
It's hard to decipher what director Susan Arnold, a well-seasoned theater pro, wanted this piece to be. Did she have a difficult time trying to get her actors to find and communicate their characters' depth? She was certainly not able to patch the mostly brief scenes together in a way that forms a dramatic arc. And she certainly should have insisted on finding more humor.
The sound design and execution was thoughtful, and the setting worked well enough, although the rather short scenes required some logistical creativity.
Generally, what we get in Winding Road's production are characters who represent the story rather than embody it, and that, in turn, keeps us at a distance. We want to care about them, but they never find their way into our hearts. Consequently, Cho's vision is never clear.