Real-life couple Claudia Wilkens and Richard Ooms could probably teach a master class on playing husband and wife on stage. The Twin Cities theater veterans are at it again in Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive,” this time portraying Resten and Alta, the last remaining speakers of a fictional tongue called Elloway.
As linguist George (Kurt Kwan), desperate to record the dying language, implores the squabbling pair to speak it, they ignore him, carping away in English because Elloway has no words for articulating anger. Meanwhile George, so skilled at his work, can’t tell his wife he loves her, and his assistant pines silently for him, also unable to verbalize her emotions.
“It’s more a love story than a comedy, more like three love stories,” said Wilkens. “Resten and Alta just carry on bickering like an old married couple. Richard and I certainly know how to do that. Being able to express yourself, to air your feelings, is part of what keeps a marriage going.”
Wilkens said that when she first picked up Cho’s script, she couldn’t stop reading it. “In Elloway, the very phrase for ‘I love you’ actually means ‘Don’t leave me.’ That’s amazing.”
The role of Alta is a satisfying one, she says, “because she’s very volatile. That’s how she wins the arguments after he prods her. I do that all the time, so I know it’s effective.”
And for all their quarreling, “they still find ways to make up,” she said.
As a writer of more than a dozen plays as well as the hit television shows “Big Love” and “Fringe,” Cho knows her way around the topic of amour. “The Language Archive,” for which she won the 2009 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, blends bits of magical realism with naturalism. For example, L.L. Zamenhof, the long-dead inventor of Esperanto, which was to have been the world’s first and only universal language, makes an appearance.
For director Rick Shiomi, the play contains a lot of humor, but is also “a warm, heartfelt story about people trying to deal with love, which we all know is no easy thing.”
Shiomi, who this week received a prestigious Distinguished Artist Award from the McKnight Foundation, said that working on the play has spurred him to reflect on “the different levels and kinds of love there are in the world — long relationships, dysfunctional relationships, love of ideas and words. There are all kinds of ways for people to share and experience love, but there are also ways we miss it, because we don’t understand what it takes to communicate it.”