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.
Characters speak English, even when they're supposed to be speaking Irish. Friel's convention is difficult to accept, especially when his play deals with language at such a fundamental level and is so firmly grounded in realism. Director Howard Davies compounds the problem by failing to distinguish when characters are speaking in translated Irish or actual English, causing frequent confusion.
While this production will undoubtedly be helped by its screen stars, the stage performances do not live up to expectations.
As Maire, Delany walks through the Irish countryside more like a street-wise New Yorker than a demure milkmaid. It is difficult to believe that she has ever seen a cow, much less milked one. Her charisma is regrettably undermined by an awkward performance.
Dennehy is also unconvincing as Hugh, a brooding Lear figure who mourns the destruction of his community. Partly because of Friel's flimsy dialogue, Hugh's appeals lack the weight of his pivotal role in the play as the last stand against the encroaching English language.
Sewell does a better job with Owen, the son who seemingly shuns tradition but is more conflicted than he realizes. Sewell explores the complexities of his character, only to find that Friel hasn't written enough to fully express his thoughts.
The standout performances come from those not blessed with name-recognition, most notably Compsty as George. His presence, to a much greater extent than Dennehy's, evokes the inspiring spirit of the native Irish.
Donnelly also gives an impressive performance as Jimmy Jack, the Fool counterpart to Dennehy's Lear. Campbell is affecting as the spurned Manus, especially in his heartbreak at finding Maire with George.
The set design, by Ashley Martin-Davis, effectively denotes the school as the focal point of the town's struggle with the forces of change. Chris Parry's lighting enhances the set with its subtle colors, evoking the tenuous purity of the town.
While humorous and enjoyable, Translations ultimately fails to produce a memorable theatrical experience. Its lackluster stars and conflicted plot combine to touch the skin, but not the soul, robbing Friel of his poetic voice without offering a compelling narrative in return.