directed by Howard Davies
at the Colonial Theater, Boston
through February 26
Scheduled to open on Broadway in less than a month, Brian Friel's Translations hopes to follow the success of his Tony Award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa. But the Boston production touches the shallowest of emotions, proving once again that star-power does not necessarily translate into outstanding theater.
The play opens in 1833, at a schoolhouse in the rural Irish township of Ballybeg. British soldiers settle in to map and rename Ireland, forcibly replacing Gaelic place names with English and suppressing the Irish language.
However, outside influences have already changed the town. As naive yet ambitious milkmaid Maire (Dana Delany of "China Beach" fame) confronts schoolmaster Hugh (Brian Dennehy) for not teaching English: "The sooner we learn English the better...The old languages are a barrier to modern progress."
Along with Jimmy Jack (Donal Donnelly), a village elder, Hugh refuses to cede to the forces of change, in an effort to preserve the town's native language and spirit. But they are powerless in the face of English might.
Hugh's own son Owen (Rufus Sewell) is the soldiers translator, returning to Ballybeg after six years in Dublin. He says to the villagers, "My job is to interpret your quaint, archaic tongue into the King's English."
He accompanies Captain Lancey (Geoffrey Wade) and Lieutenant George Yolland (Michael Compsty) as they enter the schoolhouse with their renaming plan. The native spirit of Ballybeg fascinates George. "I've moved to a consciousness that isn't striving and agitated, but is perfectly at ease with its self-assurance," he says.
In this reverie, George falls in love with Maire, who returns his affection even though she is engaged to Hugh's older son, Manus (Rob Campbell). These complications propel the characters towards the play's ambiguous conclusion.
At its best, Friel's dialogue is so at ease with poetry and humor that it is difficult not to fall into his hands. Difficult--but not impossible. The dialogue often sacrifices basic understanding for poetic effect.
What we do understand is ultimately uninspiring. The play doesn't probe deeply into the ramifications of the loss of language, as its title suggests. Instead, Translations becomes a standard love story about two people from different worlds: an Irish "City Mouse and Country Mouse" meets Miss Saigon. This tired tale overwhelms the more engaging juxtapostion of the physical presence of the soldiers with the intangible but overpowering influence of the English language.
Friel's play also stumbles with the more basic problem of telling a story about the loss of the Irish language to an English-speaking audience.