Searching for the Right Words: Julia Cho's award-winning "The Language Archive" makes its Michigan debut at Theatre Nova


A photo of Rick Sperling and Monica Spencer on stage for The Language Archive.

Rick Sperling and Monica Spencer star in the Michigan premiere of The Language Archive, which is at Theatre Nova through February 26. Photo by Sean Carter.

When Julia Cho read about dying languages, she wondered if losing a language meant something larger—losing a whole way of looking at the world.

In her whimsical play The Language Archive, Cho explores the questions: Do languages that develop between people in a country (or a marriage) die when the participants die? Does the culture die when the language does?    

First produced in 2009 at The South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, California, and then in 2010 at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City, The Language Archive makes its Michigan debut at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova, February 3-26, directed by Carla Milarch. (The play won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to a new English-language play by a woman.)

“There are sixty-nine hundred languages in the world. More than half are expected to die within the next century,” says George, a linguist and the play’s protagonist. In addition to his native English, George speaks eight languages including Greek, Cantonese, Esperanto, and Elloway—the last of which is a dying fictional tongue.

George is passionate about his work, recording and preserving dying languages, including that of Resten and Alta, a husband and wife.

“The central focus of the play is an older couple who come from a fictional place and speak Elloway," says Milarch. "Their culture is very different than American culture and that is expressed through the language." 

Resten and Alta speak their native tongue to express love for each other, but when they argue, they do so in English.

“Their language is too beautiful for this angry talk,” Milarch suggests. “George sets about trying to get them to make up and talk about their culture [so he can record their language.]”

When one of them dies, will the language die, too? 

George faces frustrations at home, with his wife, Mary, leaving him strange messages throughout their home: “Husband or throw pillow? Wife or hot water bottle? Marriage or an old cardigan?”

Mary says she doesn’t remember writing the notes—or she won’t confess to leaving them. 

George says Mary cries at everything, “long-distance phone commercials, nature specials when animals of prey get killed.”

She even cries when she’s asleep.

George never cries, at least not about ordinary things, and that frustrates Mary.

He is moved more by the death of languages than by the death of people or animals.

“Because when we say a language dies, we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life,” George says. 

“You mourn ideas, not people,” Mary concludes, and decides to leave George.

Will he find the words to stop her?

Theatre Nova's poster art for The Language Archive features a cassette tape with a lipstick kiss placed on it. The play's title is written on the section of tape reserved for album titles.

George's assistant, Emma, is not bothered by his apparent personality deficiency. She loves him and learns the international language Esperanto to better communicate with him. Will she find the right words to draw him to her? Will he find his way back to Mary?

Actor Rick Sperling, who plays Resten as well as a mysterious unnamed character, struggles with the limits of language, too, as he tries to define a play billed as a "romantic comedy."

“It’s not really a romantic comedy but maybe that’s the closest thing you could say," Sperling says. "There are romantic feelings, and there is comedy. It’s very sweet and very human and very sophisticated and high-minded at other times. It’s very funny. It’s grappling with intellectual and serious challenges, but it does it in a wonderfully comic way. I was surprised at how funny the situations were.” 

Milarch says this is her favorite type of play, one with rich language, wordplay, and complex ideas.

“The ideas are interesting to chew on” she says, adding that scenes move “from the very intimate to the very absurd. It’s heartbreaking and very funny. It’s a romance and a physical comedy.” 

Sperling’s second character is sometimes a baker, sometimes the inventor of Esperanto. He says this character seems to be real in some segments and a figment of another character’s imagination in others.

“But it’s the same guy,” says Sperling, comparing the character to someone you might meet in a dream. “When you have a dream, someone can be defined but not someone you know. I think that’s what’s challenging about the play and what’s fascinating, the sense of how reality and language are connected.”

Resten and Alta are real enough, but they “speak in a language from a country we do not identify," Sperling says. "We have to create an accent for when they speak in English,” adding that it can’t be any recognizable accent. “The language is supposed to sound like the rush of water.” 

“Although the playwright provided us with the words," Milarch says, "we created a pronunciation guide in order to know how to speak them."

The Language Archive moves between many locations including a home, a language lab, a train station, a hospital room, and a bakery, requiring a minimalist and creative approach to design, especially in an intimate theater like Nova. Milarch says lighting by Jeff Alder and versatile scenery by Monica Spencer, including chairs that become a railroad platform and a table that can break apart, serve to shift scenes in this production. 

Alder's lights consist of five colors, sometimes mixed, each representing a different emotion: blue suggests safety and security; amber for intensity, sometimes anger. 

“Orange is solid, strong, and real. Red is violent, hurt, passionately desperate, or sexy. Green is weird, scary, or sick,” Alder says, explaining that the home has a blue base, for instance, while the hospital's is green.

The Language Archive's artistic team also includes costume designer Krista Brown, sound designer Kennikki Jones-Jones, and stage manager/props designer Briana O’Neal. The cast also features Emily Wilson-Tobin, Monica Spencer, Ellen Finch, and Jeffrey Miller.

Ann Arbor-based arts journalist Davi Napoleon did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from New York University. She taught theater history and directed at Albion College and taught writing the magazine article, dramatic literature, and composition classes at Eastern Michigan University. 

“The Language Archive” runs from February 3-26 at Theatre Nova, 410 W Huron St. in Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information, visit