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Brian Friel’s Translations opens with a young woman who suffers from a severe speech impediment being gently coached on how to introduce herself. Seldom has a play succeeded so completely in encapsulating its schema within its very first moment. Identity, and the extent to which it is governed by language, are Friel’s areas of inquiry in this beloved Irish export, which has had innumerable productions since its premiere in Derry in 1980. Whether identity changes when language does is his specific question. “What’s in a name,” is how a playwright who died nearly 400 years before Friel did put it. To specify that it was an English playwright would be needlessly cruel.
Anyway, that woman, Sarah (Megan Graves), is a student at a provincial “hedge school” in Ballybeg, a fictional village in County Donegal where many of Friel’s most celebrated plays (including the later Olivier- and Tony Award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa) took place. The year is 1833, nearly a century before this part of northern Ireland would become Northern Ireland, but Anglo-Irish conflict is already a scourge beyond memory. Manus (Matthew Aldwin McGee), the sensitive son of the drunkard schoolmaster Hugh (Brad Armacost), has largely taken over his father’s duties of teaching their adult pupils Greek and Latin—but not English, the tongue of their oppressors. Meanwhile, Royal Army surveyors have arrived to map this part of the island and to Anglicize place names to simplify navigation and taxation. No one calls them occupiers.
Easing the way for the soldiers is Manus’ long-absent brother Owen (Erin Gann), a prosperous Dublin merchant who has returned home as the Army’s fixer. Although nearly all the dialogue is performed in English, we quickly apprehend that the villagers are speaking “Irish,” or Gaelic, and the soldiers are speaking English. Owen is serving as translator, often tweaking the message in flight. His employers reflexively Anglicize even his name, calling him “Roland.” Manus understands the Army men, too, but plays dumb out of spite.
The captain in charge of the mapmaking mission (Jeff Keogh) is a severe man who expects obedience from the villagers. He slows his tempo and raises his voice when addressing them, as though that will help them decipher his foreign tongue. But his aide, Lieutenant Yolland (Cary Donaldson), is a more sympathetic sort, charmed by the countryside and determined to speak and understand Irish for himself. And that’s before he becomes smitten with Maire (Molly Carden), a milkmaid who wants to learn English and immigrate to America.
Few of the other characters share their mutual yearning for connection: Jimmy Jack (Martin Giles), is a gentle old nutter who sits around reading Homer and Virgil and claims to have bedded Athena. He ignores hygiene and anything else that might privilege the physical world he lives in above the world of dead languages in his mind. Feisty Bridget (Caroline Dubberly) reports ominous rumors of standardized national schools that will soon take children aged 6 to 12 away from their agricultural chores to be educated all day long, in English. It must be a credit to these actors that the “threat” of children being spared hard labor for six years so they can acquire some baseline literacy indeed registers as a cause for mild alarm.
Director Matt Torney is a native of Northern Ireland who has felt the latter-day echoes of the ancient fracture examined in Translations firsthand. He’s careful not to present the villagers as all alike in their desires. Though the show settles into a more languid groove after that powerful opening with Graves learning to speak her name, and parsing the relationships among the many characters requires attentive viewing, it’s difficult to imagine what Torney might’ve done to make the story or its subtext any more intelligible.
He has cast his production masterfully, finding 10 actors—many performing at Studio for the first time—who are strong and distinct enough to keep the large number of characters variegated, and to make the matter of who can and cannot understand which lines in any scene utterly clear. (This is much more important than perfecting their accents, though to my tin yankee ear, they all sounded right enough.) Torney’s light hand is never more deft than right after intermission,when Carden and Donaldson share a private moment late at night, conversing intimately though each can only partially decode the other’s words.
They give the show—which is, I should say, frequently very funny— its measure of sweetness before tragedy strikes, while Armacost supplies its thundering climax. “To remember everything is a form of madness,” he says, before settling in to recite a passage of The Aeneid that captures the villagers’ present conundrum. He can’t quite remember it.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$69. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.