Polly Noonan makes her directorial debut with Piven’s ‘The Language Archive’
By Mary Houlihan For Sun-Times Media February 20, 2014 2:20AM
Director Polly Noonan photographed at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston Sunday, February 9, 2014. | Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media
♦ To March 23
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Updated: March 22, 2014 6:15AM
Everyone has past experiences that helped determine their future. For actress-director Polly Noonan this moment came in her teenage years when she took classes at the Piven Theatre Workshop and was a member of the Young People’s Company with John Cusack and Jeremy Piven. Throughout her career, it is the place she returns to over and over “to be restored.”
“The Workshop is the first room I every acted in unless you count the play I did in sixth grade,” Noonan says with a laugh. “It’s so inspiring and I feel fortunate to be able to continue a dialogue (Workshop co-founder) Joyce Piven and I started over 30 years ago.”
Noonan, who is best known for her performances in many of Sarah Ruhl’s plays, returns home once again to make her Piven directorial debut with Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive,” a comedy-drama about language and love. George (Paul Fagen) is a brilliant linguist devoted to preserving dying languages who ironically has communication problems at home. His wife, Mary (Abigail Boucher), leaves cryptic messages for him around the house and is prone to bursting into tears while washing the dishes.
Noonan auditioned for the role of Mary in a previous production at another theater. She wasn’t cast but she did fall in love with Cho’s play, which received the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. A talk with her friend Ruhl, another Piven alum, convinced Noonan that Cho’s play was a perfect fit for Piven.
“The fragility and delicate nature of the play craves a smaller more intimate production,” Noonan says. “I think of it as a fable. It’s theatrical and sort of otherworldly but at the same time reflecting the world we live in.”
Cho’s inspiration for “The Language Archive” derived from growing up in a bilingual home, but not knowing the language. That experience, Cho says, had her thinking about language her entire life. But it was coming across a New York Times Magazine article profiling a dying language and “Spoken Here,” a book about endangered languages, that got her thinking.
“I’ve often wondered why I never learned Korean and I started researching why and how language is passed on,” Cho says. “I started to think language was very fragile and the idea of so many languages going extinct reinforced that. Out of that stew, came the seeds of this play.”
As “The Language Archive” unfolds, George finds respite from his messy marriage at his office. He works with his assistant Emma (Emily Tate) to preserve the Elloway language by recording its last native speakers — a bickering couple Reston (Torrey Hanson) and his wife, Alta (Caron Buinis). Emma’s crush on George only complicates matters.
Themes of love were definitely on Cho’s mind. “It seemed to me that language and communication — and the reasons why we speak the languages we do — are intimately bound up with who and what we love. Communication, connection, understanding — both the success of those things and the failures.”
But don’t expect a pat fairy tale ending to this story. As they say, “it’s complicated.” Noonan said this fable-like reflection of the real world appeals to her creative sensibilities.
“The play doesn’t actually tie everything up with a pretty bow,” Noonan explains. “Instead, what you get is a more complicated, richer hue. Life is loss and struggle and moments of connection. The parameters we live in are sometimes not so easy. Sometimes things work out better than you expected but sometimes they don’t.”