Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., can remember the precise moment when she knew that words would be her life’s work. It is her fifth birthday and she begins to read The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter. She asks her father what “soporific” means, and then is delighted to see his definition realized in the illustration: “The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!” This is a particularly clever scene, since Vivian will go on to become a professor of seventeenth century poetry, with a specialization in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Now, with Stage IV metastatic cancer, she is once again seeing something she knows academically fulfilled in real life—Donne most famously wrote about death and dying. Furthermore, Donne’s most famous sonnet concludes with the line, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.” Vivian’s final encounters with language, then, are looped back to her first.
We’ve all seen the photos. A sign that reads, “Do Drunken Driving.” Another warns, “Slip and Fall Down Carefully.” Or a can labeled, “The Jew’s Ear Juice”—perhaps the most unappetizing beverage on the planet. These comical mistranslations provide the springboard for Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s new play about the failure of language as a means of communication. Much more optimistic than his previous M. Butterfly, it is a sort of mash up of Eugene Ionesco and Hartzell’s Harmony in Conflict: Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), a disgraced Enron executive, tries to internationalize his failing family business, Ohio Signage, by offering high-quality translations for a new cultural center in an up-and-coming Chinese province. He employs Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), an English teacher posing as a consultant, to weave through the language and the customs of China, meanwhile falling for the Deputy Minister of Culture, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim).
In the opening moments of The Glass Menagerie, Tom tells his audience, “The play is memory.” The same line could be used by Brian Friel in Dancing at Lughnasa, which is narrated by Michael (Michael McMonagle), a man who recalls the summer of 1936 as a cataclysmic time in his life: he would meet his father, Gerry (Kevin Collins), for the first time, and his household, previously dominated by his mother (Annabel Hägg), a senile uncle (John Tyrrell), and a gaggle of aunts, would be reduced to just four. The group struggles to make ends meet and maintain traditional, Catholic values as a colder, modern world steadily creeps into their domestic space.