Funny, heartfelt and painful, The Language Archive speaks to truths that are more complex than any language can describe.
TheatreWorks is beginning its 50th anniversary season with a thoughtful show that features many of the key elements that have made this local theater company great. Unfortunately, The Language Archive also exhibits a certain degree of hopelessness which ultimately prevents this good show from becoming a great show.
The Language Archive follows George, a language scientist who is trying to record rare languages before they die out forever. Everything seems to be going his way when the last two speakers of a language agree to come to the archive. There’s just one problem, they’re husband and wife and they’re in the middle of an argument. Furthermore, they will only have that argument in English. Away from the archive and his work, George’s life is falling apart. His wife leaves him unexpectedly and he is suddenly forced to confront his inability to communicate his feelings. As relationships between the characters progress, love is lost and won based on the characters’ abilities to express themselves. It’s a play all about language that centers around people who can’t seem to say what they mean.
At its best moments, the show delves deep into the difference between speaking to and truly understanding another person. It’s sad, funny and real, but it also carries an undercurrent of futility.
I usually try to stay spoiler-free in my reviews, but in this case I feel that I have to explain why the last five to ten minutes of the play ruined the entire story for me. At the end, the playwright chose to have each actor come back on stage and explain in third person how the rest of their characters’ lives turned out. There was no particularly shocking information that came out of this epilogue, everything played out very realistically. But instead of the hope of change and new possibilities that permeated the last scene of the play, the epilogue wrapped everything up too cleanly. Life is rarely straightforward, and for most of the play, that was shown remarkably well. But with that closing monologue, everything suddenly felt very removed from the audience--happening in a separate world that we weren’t invited into anymore. I wholeheartedly believe that the show would be much stronger and much more satisfying if that last scene hadn’t been included and the endings of the characters were left less concrete.
It’s a good show overall. It tells a moving story that doesn’t choose easy answers over emotional resonance. Still, the script chooses to tie things up too neatly in the end in a way that makes the human condition feel a little less hopeful than the rest of the show seemed to convey. Ultimately, it’s a good show, but not as good as it could have been.
The Language Archive is playing at TheatreWorks in the Lucie Stern Theatre (1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto) now through August 4, 2019. Tickets range $30-$100 with discounts available for educators, seniors, active military and patrons 35 and younger.
Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello