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Translations: Words Of Love

Not many plays that last a mere 25 performances their first time on Broadway get a second crack at it, but whatever troubles may have beset the 1995 mounting of Brian Friel's Translations (which I did not see) there is not a trace of them in director Garry Hynes' positively radiant production at the Biltmore.  Her heart-stirring ensemble cast graces Friel's romantic and poetic political folk drama with attention-gripping conviction.  Designers Francis O'Connor (sets and costumes) and Davy Cunningham (lights) have created extraordinary visuals subtly enhanced by John Leonard's sound.  Hynes' unhampered staging brings out the beauty of the playwright's words to perfection.  This is undoubtedly one of the season's great evenings of theatre. 


Set in a small Irish town in 1833, Translations deals with the period where the British decreed that all towns, streets and places must have their Irish names replaced with English ones in order to help Anglicize the Emerald Island.  The new government sponsored schools prohibiting the use of their native tongue led to the creation of "hedge schools" where, for a fee, Gaelic-speaking teachers would instruct in Irish history and culture.  One such hedge school, run by Hugh (a self-important, but folksy Niall Buggy), who also coaches his adult students in Latin and Greek, resides in the weathered barn where the action takes place. 


Hugh's son Manus (David Costabile) is attracted to the adventurous Maire (Susan Lynch), who wishes to learn English so she can seek out a better life in America.  Her interest in him fades when she learns he won't apply for a well-paying teaching position in an English school, saying he refuses to compete with his father, who has applied for the same job.  When Manus' younger brother, the enterprising Owen (a charming Alan Cox), surprises everyone with a visit back from Dublin, it turns out he has a new position as translator for two British soldiers who have been assigned to re-name every location on their county's map.  In helping the British, Owen may be seen as a traitor to some, but his greatest concern is to see to it that Ireland's Anglicized names maintain the history of his homeland. 


A marvelous conceit of the play is that, although the actors all speak English, the audience can fully grasp that their English-speaking and Gaelic-speaking characters cannot understand each other without Owen around to assist. 


Lt. Yolland (an awkwardly shy Chandler Williams) has fallen in love with the new land he's surveying, especially when Maire makes her attraction to him clear.  The two of them open the second act with an extraordinarily funny, romantic and touching scene where, left alone, they try and communicate their blossoming love. 


There are also some lovely moments between Manus and Sarah (Morgan Hallett), a nearly mute girl who he encourages to use her voice. 


Friel's text is not plot-driven, but more of an exploration of certain relationships as they pertain to the way language shapes our culture.  The ending realistically leaves you hanging a bit, but Hynes' graceful and sensitive production completely satisfies. 


Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Niall Buggy

Center:  Chandler Williams and Susan Lynch

Bottom:  Morgan Hallett and David Costabile


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From This Author Michael Dale