Coinciding with the acquisition by the Princeton University Library of a significant and valued collection (more than 1,000 items) of classic, contemporary, and rare Irish dramatic literature is Irish playwright Brian Friel’s 1980 play “Translations,” as staged by the McCarter Theater. The plans for this co-production with the Manhattan Theater Club include a transfer to MTC’s Broadway venue, the Biltmore Theater.
Under the studied and deferential direction of Garry Hynes, Tony award-winner for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “Translations” seems to have lost some of the translation in the large expanse of the McCarter’s Matthews Theater. Hopefully, it will recover its inherent ability to amuse and admonish us in the shallower depths of the Biltmore. Hearing Friel’s lovely words distinctly is clearly an issue, and a disconcerting one, that should be addressed by the director and the fine company of actors charged with delivering them.
Ironically, words matter less in the play’s most memorable scene when a Gaelic-speaking peasant girl and a British soldier have a romantic, understandably humorous cross-cultural flirtation without either able to comprehend a word the other is saying.
In another delightful scene, a whiskey-swigging, Gaelic-speaking old Irish schoolmaster, who evidently never heard of order in the classroom, lavishes upon his often preoccupied peasant students the glories of the Latin and Greek cultures and languages. This he does with relish, as he also tries to come to terms with the invasion of the English and their language into his world. Although the play contains some Gaelic, the dialogue is in English even when characters are speaking Gaelic.
This beautifully written, if sad, study of the erosion of an aesthetically graced culture is set mostly in an outmoded hedge school in the town-land of Baile Beag/Bally Beg, in the community of County Donegal. The year is 1833, just four years after the Catholic Emancipation and a brigade of British Red-coats is enforcing an edict — that all Irish place names be translated into English. While it is both painful and somewhat mournful to see these earthy people, who for centuries have been exalted by their paradoxically floridly imaginative language, suddenly being reduced to “standardized” English, it is seen as only part of the educational, social, and political upheaval that alters the relationships in Friel’s informed play.
If at first the well-intentioned, benign, and presumably supportive changes and sudden linguistic barriers don’t exactly create an upheaval among Friel’s rather complacent flock in their newly administered society, the cautious optimism of both Hugh (Niall Buggy), the intellectually stirring schoolmaster, and his one son, Owen (Alan Cox), now a successful Dublin businessman who works for the British as an interpreter, is soon to turn a little sour. Manus (David Costabile), the other son, who has remained as heir to his father’s tutorial legacy, remains pessimistic about the invaders’ long-term effect. Lame since infancy, Manus also becomes increasingly despondent by the kindling romance between his once intended girlfriend Maire (Susan Lynch) and the handsome, eager-to-be-assimilated Lieutenant Yolland (Chandler Williams).
The sad dichotomy of a family of scholars, and the misguided good intentions of a favored nation upon a resolutely insularly spiritual people, resound throughout the play. Not so paradoxically, the play resonates poignantly in light of the Americanization of Iraq. Certainly the British, among other gestures, will build new schools to replace the makeshift hedge schools and reassess the taxes for the common good. The set, the creation of designer Francis O’Connor, is an old, grey, almost barren barn, notable for its massive shaky doors and a wooden stairway without guard rails leading to the rafters. Davy Cunningham’s atmospheric lighting, which includes a downpour, enhances the mood.
Hynes has directed the play with unhurried control, and has assuredly kept tabs on its colloquial unity. Garbed in worn out tail-coated attire that occasionally includes a beaten-up top hat, Buggy makes as fine looking a leprechaun as he does a doleful-eyed but aesthetically uplifted schoolmaster. Williams, the lover cum Baile-Beag-struck soldier, is convincingly romantic and dashing as the young Romeo. Lynch is spirited and appealing, as the infatuated lass who yearns to understand him.
Costabile’s bitter Manus extracts our empathy as he concedes both the loss of his lover and the relinquishing of his opportunity at the British school. Morgan Hallett turns in a fine performance as an almost mute girl. Equally well characterized are Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy, the barn’s constantly “potted” intellectual; Michael Fitzgerald, as the doltish Doalty; and Graeme Malcolm, as the brash British captain. “Translations” is less a perfect play than a carefully textured poignant portrait of a people who cherished their language and of a country that had no say in its future. The play’s dramatic rewards, including its gentle humor, are almost too subtly observed, but nevertheless deserving of the attention of a thoughtful audience.
“Translations,” through Sunday, October 29, Matthews Theater at the McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-ARTS (2787) or www.mccarter.org.