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.

– Simon Saltzman

"Translations," through Sunday, October 29, Matthews Theater at the

McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-ARTS (2787)

or www.mccarter.org.

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