TheatreWorks' 'The Language Archive' is a warmhearted season starter


An enthusiastic standing ovation greeted TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Artistic Director Robert Kelley at opening night of "The Language Archive." It was a poignant, warmhearted honor for the man who's fresh from accepting a Tony Award and starting his very last season at the head of the company he founded 50 years ago. And, as it turns out, Julia Cho's "The Language Archive" also is a fittingly poignant and warmhearted way to usher in TheatreWorks' 50th year.

Set "somewhere in America" in "the present," the titular "Language Archive" is the workplace of George (Jomar Tagatac), an academic devoted to the study and preservation of the world's languages, especially the most endangered ones. Languages are George's true love, much to the dismay of his apparently long-suffering wife Mary (Elena Wright), who's frustrated by his inability to express emotion. He's in turn befuddled by her penchant for breaking down in tears and leaving him cryptic, ominous notes. He doesn't much mourn for the loss of family members or pets, he argues, because their deaths are inevitable and expected. The loss of a language, on the other hand, is a true tragedy because it means the end of an entire culture, way of life and/or world view.

When Mary announces she's leaving him for good, though, he finds himself sadder than he could have expected, albeit still unable to find the right words to express himself. They've lost the ability to communicate. It's like a linguistics version of the old parable of the shoemaker's children having no shoes.

Working with him at the archive is his devoted assistant Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters), who's head-over-heels for mild-mannered George. She's even studying Esperanto, the international language idealistically invented by L. L. Zamenhof in the 19th century, to facilitate communication (it happens to be George's particular passion) with hopes of somehow winning his heart.

The archive's new project involves a visit from the world's only two remaining speakers of "Elloway," a fictional language from an unnamed land. Alta (Emily Kuroda) and Resten (Francis Jue) are especially exciting to George and Emma because, as a long-married couple, they'll be able to offer the scientists examples of dialogue and context. It soon becomes apparent that not all will go smoothly, though, as the elderly lovebirds are having a full-out feud and are conducting all their arguments in English (Elloway, they say, is too beautiful for expressing their anger in). Other characters, also played by the wonderful Kuroda and Jue, include an exuberant Esperanto teacher, a socially awkward, suicidal baker and a vision of Zamenhof himself.

It's important that a play about language is well-written and Cho's words are indeed lovely, funny and sprinkled with whimsy and interesting information. The characters are all likeable, although not particularly deeply developed. The uptight, oblivious, cerebral man, the overly emotional wife who finds her purpose in baked goods, the eccentric old foreigners and the loyal, lovestruck young woman with a crush on her boss could all sink into eye-rolling cliche were it not for Cho's gentle script and very endearing performances by all of the actors. As Alta and Resten, Kuroda and Jue get the showiest parts, with plenty of slapstick comedy and, later, romantic moments. It's all well paced by local theater luminary Jeffrey Lo, making his main stage TheatreWorks directorial debut, and the bittersweet ending is more interesting than a romantic-comedy trope.

Special attention must be paid to Andrea Bechert's absolutely delightful scenic design, which lines the set, floor to ceiling, with stacked cubes serving as the Language Archive, George and Mary's home, an artisan bakery and more. One could spend a long time marveling at the details of these shelves, bearing all sorts of vintage recording equipment, books and trinkets, and become mesmerized by the rainbow-hued light panels that change color (lighting by Michael Palumbo) depending on scene and mood.

"The Language Archive" is, like Mary's fresh-baked chocolate-lavender loaves, a sweet confection and a promising starter for TheatreWorks' golden season.

What: "The Language Archive."

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: Through Aug. 4. See online for performance times.

Cost: $30-$90.

Info: TheatreWorks.

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