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At first blush, most theatergoers will assume that the title of Joseph Zettelmaier’s latest play at Performance Network Theatre, “Language Lessons,” refers to the struggles and eventual triumph of human nature over the barriers of language and culture.
But for those of us who’ve been watching this young, local playwright hone his skills over the past few years, the meaning is much deeper.
For what “Language Lessons” REALLY represents is yet another leap in the author’s development – particularly in his use of language to shape his characters and the story they tell. (His previous script, “All Childish Things” that premiered last summer at Planet Ant Theatre, is under consideration for a prestigious award by the American Theatre Critics Association.)
Often celebrated for his beautifully written and natural sounding dialogue – especially for women – the lessons Zettelmaier learned from his previous efforts have certainly paid off. The result is a tightly focused, well-constructed story with razor-sharp dialogue that had many in the audience sniffling as the lights faded for the last time on opening night.
In “Language Lessons,” 75-year-old retired American diplomat Arthur Hayden opens the doors of his guest house to visiting Russian prima ballerina Ilyana Belinskaya who’s in town to appear in her final ballet. Rude, brusque, overbearing and an all-around prima donna, the shoot-from-the-hip 28-year-old finds her stay in America somewhat frustrating – and not just because of language differences. (She speaks English very well, but not “American.”) “Why should I have to adjust?” she matter-of-factly asks Laura Dobbs, Arthur’s longtime personal assistant and best friend. “Why shouldn’t YOU adjust to me?”
It’s that attitude that makes life on the Hayden estate both comical and maddening. But when a secret Arthur has hidden from Ilyana is finally revealed, it’s not what’s SAID that draws the three together. Rather, it’s the quiet but powerful lesson he teaches that has the greatest impact.
One sign of Zettelmaier’s continued growth is how deeply he digs into the psyches of his three characters. More so than ever before, his careful choice of words strips bare their innermost selves. There’s little wasted breath here; each syllable delivers its intended message.
(I did have minor problems, though, with a brief moment or two that didn’t quite ring true. Having grown up in a house filled with women and surrounding myself over the years with a large harem of female co-workers and close friends, as my mother used to call them, I’ve observed firsthand how the dynamics of female relationships often play out. As such, those rare moments FELT like they were written and directed by men. I also suspect women will find this story much more emotionally satisfying than men will – but please bear with me for not revealing why.)
Bringing Zettelmaier’s words to life is frequent collaborator David Wolber, whose direction is slick throughout. And the performances he coaxes from his excellent cast are generally spot-on.
Making his Network debut as Arthur is longtime educator/thespian R.L. Smith, whose characterization perfectly matches the playwright’s description. And Terry Heck as Laura is obviously having a blast playing psychological head games with and tossing sweet sarcasm towards her unapologetic guest.
However, it’s Aphrodite Nikolovski upon whose shoulders the play’s success rests. Playing a highly skilled and very arrogant ballerina whose primary language is Russian, Nikolovski never wavers from her authentic-sounding accent, nor is she ever anything but graceful. But more importantly, she creates a living, breathing and likable character when a stereotype would be far easier.
Monika Essen’s set is warm and inviting, and Joe Colosi and Nikolovski deserve a raise for all those costume changes the playwright puts them through!
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun., through Feb. 25. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: (734) 663-0696 or http://www.performancenetwork.org