In the hardscrabble world of Brian Friel's Translations, language is one of the few beautiful things the people of Ireland's countryside can claim for their very own. Irish, not English, is spoken with fierce emotion in Friel's dark portrait of 19th-century rural Ireland, now at Main Street Theater. And the grand poetry of Ovid and Homer is studied in the original language with competitive relish at the hedge school where this quirky story takes place.
Hedge schools were night schools for rural working folk, who arrived for lessons after a long day of labor. School usually took place in the home of a "master," where students paid a few cents per subject to learn everything from ciphering to Greek. But when we meet the denizens of Baile Beag in 1833, all that's about to change. The English have arrived, and during the sad, wet season of their occupation, Baile Beag will turn into the very English Ballybeg. And nobody's life will go unchanged.
The school is run by Hugh (Mark Adams) and his son Manus (Steven Laing), local intellectuals who read Greek and Latin and even know a little English. Big and burly, Hugh walks and talks like a "master" while he's in front of the students; he runs them hard, shouting out their names for answers and chiding them as "too slow" should they fail to answer quickly. His lame son is the better, kinder teacher. Manus even teaches Sarah (Kay Allmand), the mute girl, to say her name. But the young man would never go against his father, whom he adores. Manus takes care of the old man when he stumbles home drunk, and he won't apply for a position that his father wants at the National School, a new educational system that will eventually take over the hedge schools throughout Ireland. And Manus really needs the job at the National School. He wants to marry the beautiful, curlyhaired Maire (Carolyn Johnson), but she won't have him till he gets a decent job.
Main Street Theater, 2540Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.
Through March 22. $20-$35.
Into this small, careworn world come the British colonizers. Dressed in fancy red uniforms and speaking only English, Captain Lancey (Steve Bullitt) and Lieutenant Yolland (Nicholas Collins) step into the school to announce that they're English engineers come to Anglicize the name of every creek, glade and valley in County Donegal. Translating for them is Owen (Joel Sandel), Hugh's other son, who has returned from England where he went to make his fortune years ago. (Through the ingenuity of Friel's writing, the audience can understand both the Irish and the English, but they can't understand each other.)
As directed by Rebecca Greene Udden, this first meeting between the English and the Irish is funny. Pompous captain Lancey thinks he can make himself understood simply by shouting his English at the Irish. Hatefully ridiculous in his rigid arrogance as he stomps about the room in his boots, he's fun to despise. Lancey's blond-haired lieutenant, on the other hand, feels none of the superiority the captain does. In fact, Yolland is a little bit in love with the Irish countryside. And when he meets lovely Maire, who seems a bit enraptured by the uniformed men before her, he falls more in love.
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Nobody quite understands what a violation this project of renaming the world is. Owen, who's glad to be home for a while, sees nothing wrong with the work. And besides, he finds his father's old-world charms silly. Hugh is too busy getting blitzed with his favorite student Jimmy Jack (David Harlan) to see what's happening. The two old men are too lost in an alcoholic haze of Homerian goddesses to think of such ordinary things as English engineers. Bridget (Lyndsay Sweeney) and Doalty (James Arrington), the local gossips, don't much care for the British, but they don't understand the depth of the changes that are happening. And Maire is so enamored with all the refinements of the British, she can't care about what's going on. Only Manus feels the anxiety of the moment, even though he's blind to the fact that his lovely lady has grown starry-eyed for Lieutenant Yolland.
The tenderness in Friel's writing and his love of Ireland and its people are palpable throughout this gentle production.
But not all is sweetness. When Maire and Yolland meet one night outside a dance, real chemistry sparks between Johnson and Collins. And when the stakes get very high after one of the soldiers goes missing, Bullitt's Lancey turns from a bumbling fool into a dangerous tyrant. As it dawns on the Irish characters that change is coming, not all of it good, their fear is haunting.
They don't realize how much they value their own language until it's too late. And once they've lost this most beautiful of their possessions, they realize they might lose everything.