Review: In ‘Translations,’ What’s Lost When Language Is Looted

A drunken philosopher alights on what may be his pinnacle argument: That we are shaped not by the facts of history, but by our imagination of it. “We must never cease renewing those images,” he says, or we’ll stop living.

That thirsty scholar is Hugh (Seán McGinley), who runs one of Ireland’s clandestine (and illegal) hedge-schools, teaching a rustic assembly of adult pupils out of his dilapidated shanty. “Translations,” from 1980, is the first play in the Friel Project, a season of three works at the Irish Repertory Theater. A modest yet exquisite revival directed by Doug Hughes, it makes a rigorous case not only for Brian Friel’s pre-eminence as an interpreter of Irish national identity, but for the vitality of art in deciphering life.

It’s 1833 in Friel’s fictional small town, Ballybeg, where a sweet, putrid smell rising from the potato fields forebodes famine and an ingress of redcoats threatens to blight the local heritage. A rebellion in 1798 led not to independence but to forced union with Britain in the United Kingdom. And now, British soldiers, including the listless romantic Lieutenant Yolland (Raffi Barsoumian), are mapping the countryside and anglicizing Irish place-names. One of Hugh’s two sons, Owen (Seth Numrich), has become not just a translator, but a champion for the “King’s good English,” more enthused about the endeavor than even Yolland. The actors lend the fraternity between these young men an energy and curiosity that emphasizes the consequences of what they’re doing: renaming a homeland out from under its inhabitants’ feet.

Yolland is the one who hesitates, though not on moral grounds: A hapless son of empire, he fetishizes feeling like an outsider, growing sweet on the sound of Irish vowels and even sweeter on Maire (Mary Wiseman), a milkmaid with her sights set on America. Their giddy, headlong infatuation is fueled by mutual incomprehension, before a sharp turn whose potentially tragic fallout Wiseman plays with affecting transparency.

Friel’s shrewd spin on the pastoral drama is grounded in the convictions of these carefully drawn characters. But the play also confronts soaring questions about the nature of language — how it connects people to their homes (the trodden-earth set is by Charlie Corcoran) and to one another, and what happens when a native tongue is erased.

Owen Campbell delivers a quieter register of heartbreak as Hugh’s humbler son, Manus, whose dream of preserving homegrown education, with Maire at his side, becomes another colonial casualty. Embodying extreme ends of the communicative spectrum are Sarah (Erin Wilhelmi), a presumed mute who struggles to articulate her name, and Jimmy Jack (John Keating), a disheveled bookworm who waxes at length in Greek and Latin about his crush on Athene, the goddess of wisdom.

Dressed in clay-colored peasant garb by Alejo Vietti, and tenderly lit by Michael Gottlieb, each of these characters is illustrated with a Rembrandt-like specificity. As their portraits make clear, it’s essential to keep reimagining the plight of those consumed by imperial appetites. Doing so may lead to deeper understanding among us.

Through Dec. 31 at the Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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