An entire language goes extinct every few weeks, laments George (Mark Rubin), a linguist, who finds this the saddest fact in the world. He’s made it his life’s work to preserve dying languages. Meanwhile, George’s marriage to Mary (Mary Fraser) is also dying, but he can’t find the words to save it or even to articulate its loss. Flummoxed by Mary and oblivious to the love of his assistant Emma (Marie Stewart Harmon), George slowly flounders his way to his own heart — and to the words that let it speak — in Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, onstage now in an incandescent Mad Horse production, directed by Christopher Price.
Inside his Language Archive — visualized as shelves of tall brown file boxes — George has observed and mastered many systems of communication, but the woman he loves remains a mystery to him. Mary weeps constantly, he tells us in plaintive bewilderment, describing the tears that pool in her ears and collarbones. We see her pace the rooms of their home like a ghost, taut and wary in Fraser’s portrayal. In a less guarded moment, Mary lists the reasons why she weeps, in a soliloquy that Fraser lends the build, turn, and resolve of a Shakespeare sonnet. Faced with Mary’s departure, Rubin makes subtle, deftly modulated work of George’s helpless frustration. His vexation is tetchily, twitchily comedic, until it isn’t — until he finally relents to his grief with a new and poignant quiet.
The pathos of George and Mary finds comic contrast relief in the profane bickering of Alta (Tootie Van Reenen) and Resten (Payne Ratner), an older couple from abroad who come to the Language Archive so George can record their dying native tongue, but who instead spend the days insulting each other in broken English. Van Reenen and Ratner make smart-ass, sneering fun in these roles, even when some of the banter goes on a few exchanges too long, and they also deliver some of the play’s sharper barbs, as when Alta and Resten explain that they do their fighting in English because it is “the language of anger.”
Elsewhere, there are strong whiffs of magical realism in The Language Archive’s sometimes dreamlike encounters, as when Emma meets the creator of Esperanto, and Harmon’s presence onstage is a perfect guarantee against whimsy turning too precious. Harmon gives Emma a radiantly unaffected candor, and threads her lovelorn agony with wry, self-deprecating humor. When Emma is with George, Harmon does a masterful job of letting us see in her face what she will not voice with words.
As everyone navigates language and love, Cho’s images and turns of phrase are often charming and even arresting — George offers a subjective demonstration of how “lugubrious” words can become when a wife leaves you; a folded note is left to steep in a cup of tea; and George delivers an enchanting description of Alta and Resten’s dying language as one of courtship, derived from the movements of a river and of love. In the idioms of fairy-tale or rom-com magic, Emma and Mary both find new insights through surprising sources: a German Esperanto instructor (Van Reenen again, with brio) advises Emma that every second language is learned out of love. Mary finds transformation (and a lovely new luminosity) via a stranger on a train, one of a few secondary roles well played by Ratner — this one with a gentle, eccentric curiosity that’s part Jimmy Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd, part Mr. Rogers.
And Cho employs a number of devices to let us practice non-verbal understanding, and the actors soar in these physical performances: a conversation held half in English, half in Esperanto; the eventual tenderness of Alta and Resten nuzzling in their own language, literalizing the private language that exists between any two lovers.
There is, in short, a lot of language going on here. If the script sometimes feels a little sentimental in its reach, the cast’s wit, light, and empathy both raise the stakes and remind us to laugh. In The Language Archive, Mad Horse presents a lucent and meditation on the power, fallibility, wonder of words in the face of all we ask of them.
The Language Archive | By Julia Cho; directed by Christopher Price | Through October 7 | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St, South Portland | $23, $20 seniors/students | www.madhorse.com