Loving someone is one thing. Trying to find the words to say it is another.
For the comically lovelorn characters in Julia Cho's "The Language Archive," the language of love is like faulty wiring -- intermittent at best.
Cho's play, which premiered at South Coast Repertory in 2010 and has been widely produced since then, is both sweetly funny and surprisingly affecting in the City Lights Theater Company's new revival. Virginia Drake's energetic, smartly paced production, takes the audience on a beguiling trip through the linguistic minefield of romantic love.
Each of Cho's characters feels something -- although, at least in the beginning, it's hard to say what. George (Jeffrey Bracco), a linguist who specializes in dying languages, is especially tongue-tied. He spends his days recording and archiving people speaking in their native languages. But try as he might, he just can't communicate with his wife, Mary (Lisa Mallette.)
For Mary, it's easier to say it in writing. George doesn't get why she's sad -- she cries, he tells us, even when she's making salad -- and she doesn't want to talk about it. In the opening scene, she bustles around the house, mopping the floors and tidying up, pausing occasionally to place cryptic notes in George's slippers and his morning teacup. The only time she's perfectly clear is when she stops moving and tells him "I'm leaving you."
Things should be easier for Emma (Kendall Callaghan), George's research assistant. They work closely together, and she adores him with a singular passion. But George seems blind to her love. And when it comes right down to it, Emma appears powerless to tell him how she feels.
Even their current research subjects, the exceedingly odd Alta (Deb Anderson) and Resten (Ben Ortega), can't communicate. They're the world's only remaining speakers of the arcane Elloway tongue, but all they do is bicker -- in English, of course, which they call "the language of anger."
There's a poignant feeling to these situations -- once their beloved Elloway is gone, Alta explains, "no amount of talk will ever bring it back." But Cho infuses the action with humor and a kind of fairy tale charm. Supporting characters pop up just when they're needed; a storybook bake shop appears out of nowhere. Characters fall into dream states at regular intervals.
Drake's fluid staging smooths the transitions, and the designs work in tandem. Ron Gasparinetti's set -- an office stacked to the ceiling with archival boxes -- accommodates George's living room, the bake shop, a train station, and a hospital room. Lighting and projections by Nick Kumamoto, and original music and sound by George Psarras enhance the atmosphere. Jane Lambert's colorful costumes help define the characters.
A fully committed cast does the rest. Bracco gives George a nice mix of angst and abstraction, his attention always seemingly focused on something just out of range. Mallette offers pointed contrast as the delightfully down-to-earth Mary. Callaghan is vibrant as the tender, determined Emma. Anderson and Ortega, decked out in vaguely ethnic garb, are hilarious as Alta and Resten, and they return in numerous small roles: Anderson as Emma's German language coach, a train conductor, a shopper on the street; Ortega as a baker, a driver, and L. L. Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto.
As "The Language Archive" makes its points about time passing and relationships ending, the characters continue to move farther apart -- unrequited love here is a lot like the death of a language, with the last speaker left in an unbearably lonely place. But the play acquires an almost mythical aspect in its final scenes. It's not always easy to find the right words, Cho suggests. But it's always possible to connect.
'the language archive'
By Julia Cho, presented by City Lights Theater Company
Through: June 29
Where: 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: 2 hours,
15 minutes; one intermission