Not until the odd couple in knit caps and bewildered looks wander wide-eyed into “The Language Archive” does a sense of attenuation escape Julia Cho’s play, about the ramifications of mixed emotional signals and a rampant failure to communicate.
Appearing as if they’ve just ended a shift as exhibitors at an ethnic festival representing some obscure Tyrolean republic, Kerri Rambow and Edward Christian enter Forum Theatre’s Silver Spring space playing Alta and Resten, last known speakers of a dying tongue. And it is up to this well-cast pair of actors to ignite a spark in what otherwise comes across as an only occasionally vivid tale of the odds against love surviving, and the consolations when it doesn’t.
The amusingly squabbling Alta and Resten — who argue in English because it “is the language of anger,” unlike their own — represent a major find by the play’s protagonist, George (Mitchell Hebert), a linguist who, with assistant Emma (Katie Atkinson), wants to record their voices before their native language dies out entirely. Ah, but George himself is conversationally challenged. At home he’s barely able to respond when his despairing wife Mary (Nanna Ingvarsson) begs him to talk to her about the problems in their marriage.
Domestic aridity is not an easy starting point for drama, and the assignment creates a burden for director Jessica Burgess and her leading man. Hebert is a terrific actor, as was showcased recently in his moving portrayal of a father awash in rage and grief in “Clybourne Park.” But in a role as self-contained and introspective — and prominent — as George, an audience needs some more vital way in than is offered here.
The dramatist’s solution is having George talk directly to us. Yet in Burgess’s all-too-delicate treatment, direct address is not enough to draw us urgently into George’s story. Nor is it made sufficiently apparent why Atkinson’s sensitive and vivacious Emma would find this deeply businesslike and taciturn scientist so much to her liking — especially when George’s coldness has driven Mary to spontaneous storms of tears.
Although the charm of “The Language Archive” is of a low-grade radiance, it does reveal traces of it in its attempt to place on a dramatic scale the variations in the joys and pitfalls of long-term love. Cho, admirably, develops Alta and Resten’s story so that they become more than comic devices, and in Mary she’s created a character whose suffocating sorrow feels deeper than what in some plays becomes tiresome. The playwright is aided here by Ingvarsson, for whom “misstep” remains an utterly alien concept and who slowly, impressively builds a harder and harder shell around Mary’s disappointment.
Some of the play’s contrivances leave a spectator a bit less impressed with Cho’s plotting. Although linking the death of a language to the end of a relationship is lovely and poetic, there’s perhaps too much poetic license in a scene in which the fleeing Mary talks a stranger out of throwing himself in front of a train — and he, in turn, gives her his bakery business. The narration, too, of Emma’s dreams, in which she meets the father of the invented language Esperanto (played again, by Hebert), gives a spuriously academic foundation to Emma’s regard for George.
If the production’s pace is at times a bit glacial, the show looks fine in Forum’s black-box space; Debra Kim Sivigny comes up with witty costumes for George’s two foreign subjects, and the nimble “reveal” of Mary’s bakery by set designer Robbie Hayes reminds you of how uniformly strongly Forum takes charge of its physical environment. That authority, however, is not ballast enough for the evening’s talkier mechanics.
by Julia Cho. Directed by Jessica Burgess. Set, Robbie Hayes; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; lighting, Brittany Diliberto; sound, Thomas Sowers; dramaturge, Laura Esti Miller; language dramaturge, Veronika Vorel; fight choreographer, Cliff Williams III. About 2½ hours. Through March 10 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Visit www.forum-theatre.org or call 240-644-1100.