The Language Archive Speaks Eloquently on Love, Loss

Logan Buckley, Staff Writer

By focusing its gaze keenly on the ways that people talk to one another as they fall in and out of love, and the ways that languages themselves live and die, Julia Cho’s play The Language Archive melds philosophy with deep emotional truths.

Running from May 2–5 in Wilder Main, the play, directed by College senior Annie Obermeyer, focuses on three central relationships. The first is the failing marriage between linguist George (College junior Brian Gale) and his wife Mary (College sophomore Julia Melfi). George can deliver eloquent monologues on the nature of language, communication and love to the audience, but is incapable of connecting emotionally with Mary or the world. Mary, meanwhile, finds so much beauty and terror in every aspect of life, from the evening news to a jar of pickles, that she is constantly breaking down in tears. When Mary walks out on George in the first scene of the play, she makes him aware of the loss of a private language the two of them had shared — the shades of tenderness or desperation in a mundane phrase bordering on code, irreplaceable and unforgettable even after the marriage has ended.

The second relationship is between the elderly Alta (College sophomore Eve Kummer-Landau) and Reston (College junior Alexander Bianchi), a couple who are among the last speakers of a dying language, which, based on their accents, is probably from somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe. George wants to record them in conversation to save what he can of their language, but to his dismay they spend most of the session bickering in English — “an angry language,” they say. Kummer-Landau and Bianchi were pitch-perfect in their roles, mining them for both laugh-out-loud humor and incredible depths of passion and tenderness as the play explores what it means to be in love, to be close to dying.

The third relationship in the play is the unrequited love that George’s lab assistant Emma (College first-year Amy Jackson-Smith) holds for him, which she only realizes when she decides to take lessons in Esperanto, George’s favorite language. An animated instructor (College junior Charlotte Istel) insists that “all second languages are learned for love,” and Emma realizes that she loves George.

An impressive directorial choice came at the end of the first act, when Emma embraces George to comfort him in his grief over his failing marriage: stage directions are projected over the stage, describing the embrace as “a union of perfect happiness and perfect sadness.” (The projector system was also used for subtitles when characters speak languages other than English.) That choice completely changed the feeling of the scene and brought it to a new level of beauty and concord with the rest of the play. In the second act, Emma’s encounter with Zamenhof (the inventor of Esperanto, played by College senior Alex Kotlikoff) lent a tone of magical realism, which complemented well the dynamic between the two linguists and Reston and Alta.

Meanwhile, as Mary finds a new life as a baker after a chance encounter with an old man (played by Cuy Patrick Harkins, OC ’12) and Emma struggles with her unrequited feelings for George, Reston and Alta deal with the complexities of maintaining a relationship into old age. Their everyday squabbles are soon overtaken by news that Reston is seriously ill, leading to fears that they will be separated by death. In one particularly moving scene, Alta tells a sleeping Reston in their native tongue, “Don’t leave me,” as the prospect of facing life without one another overcomes their everyday squabbles.

As it follows these characters, The Language Archive circles around the complexities of language, of relationships, of love and loss, reminding us of the difficulties and challenges that these present but above all of the incredible beauty to be found in communication with one another, in life and in death.