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Raffi Barsoumian and Mary Wiseman (Photo: Carol Rosegg)



By Fern Siegel


British rule in Ireland has been long and contentious, and Ireland did not become a fully independent nation until 1949. But the colonial legacy left by its former rulers was pronounced, especially in the context of language.


That point underscores the revival of Brian Friel's Translations, now at the Irish Rep. The play addresses the power of language, specifically, defining language as part of identity. Denying its access effectively erodes a key element of culture.


Set in 1833 in the fictional Ballybeg, the Irish characters speak English for the audience. But given the time frame, we understand they are meant to be speaking Irish. Conversely, English is spoken by British officers and Owen (Seth Numrich), son of Hugh, the local hedge-school teacher (Sean McGinley), who acts as a translator for them.

The fictional backdrop mirrors historic reality.

In 1824, the U.K. Parliament commissioned a new map of Ireland, which meant Anglicizing names. For example, "Baile" meaning town, became "Bally." By the 1830s, the National School System began, requiring Irish children to attend formal schools taught only in English. (Outdoor hedge-schools, created in the 18th century, secretly taught Catholic students when their education was outlawed.)

"Translations" grapples with both issues: renaming locations and education.


The impetus for the former rests with two British soldiers, the imperious Captain Lancey (Rufus Collins) and his aide, Lieutenant Yolland (Raffi Barsoumian). The latter, a cartographer, is enamored of all things Irish, including Maire (Mary Wiseman), a local girl. They are taken with each other, and though they do not speak a similar tongue, they communicate, in an exquisite scene, with the language of the heart.


But their personal passions are opposed by locals, including Manus (Owen Campbell), an up-and-coming teacher smitten with Maire, who longs for America.


The tensions become greater as guerilla operations against the British heighten and complaints about the "sweet smell," referring to the smell of potato blight, ensue. Both foreshadow coming political attacks, as well as the famine that resulted in a mass depopulation of Ireland.


Directed by Doug Hughes, Translations offers quirky characters, such as the Homer-quoting Jimmy Jack (John Keating, an Irish Rep regular) who pines for the goddess Athena. And there is the requisite humor that underlines more serious concerns. Friel wrote the play in 1980, in the middle of the Troubles, as a response to the political crisis in Northern Ireland.  


Many Americans, however, may be unfamiliar with the history of the region. Friel posits weighty themes that speak not only to Ireland, but to all oppressed groups forced to compromise their identities to fit into a dominant culture.


This season, the Irish Repertory Theatre is presenting three Ballybeg-set plays for a collection called the Friel Project. Translations is the first, and it boasts a strong cast that brings the village of Ballybeg and its conflicts to life in a meaningful and thoughtful way. ("Aristocrats" and "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" arrive next year.)


The play is structured as both a macro commentary (the impact of a new language) and micro (an illicit love affair). It's layered and moving. But the fate of Yolland - and the subsequent British response - take a dark turn. Friel offers a chilling commentary on colonialism - in all its guises - and the totality of its effects.

Words have power. Language has power. How we communicate is vital - whether as individuals or a society. Translations begins a dialogue on the dangers of failing to find common ground. 


Translations, Irish Rep, 132 W. 22 St

Running time: 2 hours