“Say the word and you’ll be free,” sang The Beatles years ago. Mad Horse Theatre’s first production of the season suggests that it’s not as easy as the Fab Four made it sound.

Julia Cho’s imaginative “The Language Archive” concerns how trying to communicate love can get very complicated. The 2010 play’s offbeat lyricism combines poignant moments with comedic flourishes and evocative observations about human relationships (some delivered directly to the audience). It has a softer touch than many recent Mad Horse productions. Yet, in keeping with the company’s inquisitive nature, it explores the enigmatic “embrace of perfect happiness and perfect sadness.”

Mark Rubin plays George, a dedicated linguist who’s part nerd and part regular guy. As the play opens, he’s shocked to learn that his wife is leaving him. Rubin fully embodies his sad sack role, giving George dignity even as we laugh at his limitations in making human connections. Rubin’s take on George makes him highly sympathetic, despite his being off-putting at times.

Mary Fraser plays wife Mary as a dour woman who appears to have outgrown whatever initially attracted her to George. She cries a lot and leaves cryptic messages for him but quickly overcomes any ambivalence as she makes a dash toward a new life.

Marie Stewart Harmon, as lab assistant Emma who has a crush on George, projects a youthful vitality that contrasts with the self-defeating attitudes that threaten the others. Her portrayal of a relatively uncomplicated romanticism contrasts effectively with their struggles.

Much of the full-out humor, as well as a good deal of the wisdom within the play, is provided by characters Alta and Resten, the last speakers of a dying language that George is trying to preserve. They argue in English, “the language of anger,” as they say, while preserving their deepest feelings for their soon-to-be-lost mother tongue.

Mad Horse veteran Tootie Van Reenen is hilarious as her Alta scolds and admonishes her husband, played by Payne Ratner, who’s equally adept at verbal jousting. The two take full advantage of the play’s funniest writing as well as several opportunities to impart sage advice to George and Emma.

Van Reenen and Ratner also fill secondary roles, with the former continuing to draw laughs as a language teacher/mentor for Emma and the latter providing guidance to Mary and Emma during brief encounters on a train platform.

Director Christopher Price, who also co-designed the multi-purpose set with Rowan Price, has taken full advantage of the intimate theater space in South Portland to bring these quirky but good-natured characters to life in this sweetly engaging play.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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