NIU School of Theatre and Dance’s ‘The Language Archive’: Hilarious and heartbreaking


Abigail Lamoreaux

Upcoming performances of “The Language Archive” will be April 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 at 2 p.m. in the Sally Stevens Players Theatre in the Stevens Building (Abigail Lamoreaux | Northern Star)

By Abigail Lamoreaux, Managing Editor

On Friday, the NIU School of Theatre and Dance opened their final play of the season, “The Language Archive,” written by Julia Cho. This prizewinning play from 2009 received a breath of new life in this production, thanks to the more interpretive style of direction by SOTD faculty Bethany Mangum and Emily Vitrano.

Before co-writing Disney-Pixar’s “Turning Red,” Cho wrote “The Language Archive,” a play about loss of love and how loss of languages parallels it. George, a linguist, is obsessed with recording and archiving languages on the brink of extinction, yet his emotionless, logical view of the world causes Mary, his wife, to want to divorce him. George must grapple with what this dramatic life shift means for him and Mary must find herself (and her happiness) again.

The heartbroken linguist

Brennan James, a sophomore BFA acting major, is captivating in his portrayal of George. Every emotional beat is hit with earnestness, and his physicality is reminiscent of a caged bird: he desperately wants to explode with frustration, but he restrains himself. His chemistry with fellow BFA acting sophomore Emma Mansfield, who plays Mary, is equally as electric as his narrative monologues to the audience. 

Their opening scene together is breathtaking: George playfully complaining to the audience about his wife makes her eventual line “I’m leaving you” hit like a punch to the gut. As George walks and talks in circles, repeating “take it back,” his anxiety builds and builds, yet there is no release. 

James carries the emotion of this moment with him for the entirety of the play, finally breaking down when he lets the notion really sink in that Mary has “let go.” Mary later reveals, once George tries one last time to reconnect by waxing poetic about the unspoken language of their relationship, that she cannot understand him. His tears move the audience to tears.

The ex-wife, the lab assistant and the comedic relief

Every other actor was phenomenal as well. Mansfield’s performance as Mary is raw and beautiful. The audience can’t help but want her to find happiness after leaving George. She monologues to the audience, too: she declares that she is not depressed, and we believe her. When she does rediscover herself, Mansfield’s energy is truly joyous; every cell of her body is radiant with self-satisfaction.

Isabelle Ajemian, a junior BFA acting major, plays Emma, George’s assistant in the archive. Before she can even admit it, Emma’s lingering glances and awkward tone with George give away that she is in love with him. The unrequited love is potent and bittersweet, and it is all pulled off gracefully by Ajemian.

Resten and Alta, played by BFA acting juniors Zachary Harness and Naava Ofri-Akman, are the last two speakers of Elloway, a dying language. They visit George’s lab so he can record Elloway conversation. To George’s dismay, however, they are an old married couple who instead choose to air their grievances of one another and constantly bicker — in broken English — giving the play moments of much-needed hilarity. 

Often, it can be hard to understand what Resten and Alta are saying, due to their accents and overlapping lines when other characters translate in real time. This is my biggest complaint about the play. Even so, their dynamic acting makes up for their occasional unintelligibility.

Jasmyn Richardson, a BFA acting sophomore, wears many metaphorical hats in the production, most of them for plot development characters. Her comedic timing is hard to beat, especially when playing Emma’s Esperanto instructor. I applaud her unapologetic physical expression and clear points of view, even when speaking an entirely made-up language.

What to expect when you go

The play is setless with minimal props and is performed in the round. This gives the play a vacuum-like feel, as if the story is told in a void that we get to safely look into and experience. There is some minor audience interaction, and those sitting in the front rows may sometimes have an actor sit next to them. Don’t fret: this is the extent of your participation. 

Also to be noted are the play’s movement interludes. These are brief moments of expressive movement set to music that cleverly show the audience how the characters are truly feeling in that moment. If you are not used to seeing sequences of expressive gestures in a play, you might label it “interpretive dance” and brush it off, but there is masterful emotional crafting within these interludes to watch for.

The play’s second weekend has performances on April 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased through this link or by contacting the box office at 815-753-1600 or emailing The play is performed in the Sally Stevens Players Theatre in the Stevens Building. There is no intermission, it’s about two hours long.