Story: Owen returns from Dublin in 1833 to his native town of Ballybeg in County Donegal in Northern Ireland. He’s accompanied by an English cartographer named Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland, a young orthographer (adept in the rules of language) who is charmed by the language and culture of the Irish even though he doesn’t speak their native tongue.
The trio are assigned the task of mapping Ireland by the English government, with Owen serving as translator of Irish and English. Owen is mistakenly referred to as Roland by the Englishmen but doesn’t bother to correct them at first. His interest lies in the anglicized identification of local landmarks for the government’s new map of the captive Irish nation.
His father Hugh is the alcoholic schoolmaster of the local, illegal ‘hedge school’ (for teaching Catholic children and young adults), specializing in tutoring classic languages Latin and Greek, while his older brother Manus is a dedicated scholar and teacher at their father’s school.
Among Manus’ occasional students is Maire, a young Irish woman who speaks only Irish, as do most of the locals. Manus yearns to marry Maire but is distressed when he discovers that Yolland and Maire are mutually attracted. Preparing to leave town for a new and better job in another village, Manus is angered to learn that Maire and Yolland were seen kissing after a local dance.
When Yolland goes missing the morning after the dance, suspicion abounds that local revolutionaries the Donnelly twins are holding Yolland captive or worse. Manus fears that his departure might be considered suspicious in the wake of Yolland’s disappearance.
Worst of all, Captain Lancey issues a harsh decree, calling first for the slaughter of all livestock in the village if Yolland is not brought forth in one day, and the burning and destruction of the entire town if he remains missing for 48 hours.
The villagers and the ‘invading’ government have shown no interest in communicating in each other’s respective languages. Can the love between Maire and Yolland overcome that dangerous stubbornness? Or will the ‘translations’ be met with continued resistance on all sides?
Highlights: Brian Friel’s scrutiny of language in his probing, three-act drama was given a studied and satisfying interpretation in a recent Black Mirror Theatre production.
Other Info: Irish playwright Friel’s 1980 play delves into the communication, or lack of it, not only in language but also in culture and politics. It deals with the English and Irish in the 19th century, but its theme is much more universal and timeless and certainly relevant to America in the 21st century.
Director Madeline Finn smoothly guided her earnest cast through a fine and touching performance of Friel’s haunting prose, which took place on an atmospheric set designed by Finn and George Compas. It featured an old picket fence as background along with a chalk board for the school room and a table and chairs on the floor in front of the stage.
A nod as well to the unnamed props designer for the realistic-looking 19th century map utilized by Owen and Yolland. Clare Fairbanks’ lighting gave sturdy support to the action, Catherine Hopkins’ sound design was haunting and memorable and Black Mirror artistic director Dennis Corcoran served ably coaching the cast in the Irish language.
Friel cleverly has all of the characters speak primarily in English for the benefit of the audience, even if the Irish characters usually speak in their native tongue. Therefore, patrons understand what’s happening a lot easier than the clashing cultures, the exact point Friel is making.
The ingratiating cast gave several winning performances, including one appropriately enough by Chuck Winning as the whiskey-swigging Hugh, who prefers to shape his ruminations about language with a belt or four from his flask.
Daniel Higgins was amusing as the man-child Jimmy Jack and Janine Norman was affecting as the speech-impaired Sarah, a young woman whose love for Manus goes sadly unnoticed.
Carly Uding and Jesse O’Freel made for a tender couple as the independent Maire and the genial Yolland, while Joseph Garner captured the hopes and frustrations of the limping Manus. Sean Michael brought out the conflict in Owen as he attempts to bridge two cultures and William Nolan was properly stiff and unfeeling as the indifferent Captain Lancey.
Others in Finn’s dedicated cast included Maya Kelch as the observant Bridget and Duncan Phillips as the dull and dangerous rebel student Doalty.
Translations tells a splendid tale about the omnipresent roadblocks to effective communication among different cultures as well as the ever valiant efforts of the human heart to overcome them. Thanks are due to Black Mirror Theatre for offering a fine production of this rarely seen gem.
Group: Black Mirror Theatre
Dates: Run concluded
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.