The Irish Rebellion of 1798 attempted to end British rule, establish equal rights for the Irish and end religious persecution. It failed. In 1800, the country was united – some say annexed – to Great Britain. A concerted effort to control Irish culture and language made English representatives, especially soldiers, unwelcome. In truth, the Irish never gave up, they just backed down.
A National School System requiring children to speak English began to take root, but many in rural areas still attended Hedge Schools, informal sources offering catch-as-catch-can education for the poor and nonconforming faiths.
Erin Wilhelmi (Sarah), Owen Campbell (Manus)
In fictional Ballybea, a sundry group of students is taught by scholarly, congenitally inebriated Hugh O’Donnell (Sean McGinley), using Irish, Gaelic, Latin and Homeric Greek – not English. Only the master and his put-upon son, Manus (Owen Campbell), speak the language of their increasingly present usurpers. When well heeled second son, Owen (Seth Numrich), visits from Dublin, he takes a job as translator. Both he and Hugh welcome condescending Captain Lancey (Rufus Collins) and Lieutenant Yolland (Raffi Barsoumian). Quietly Nationalist, Manus is wary. The O’Donnell brothers represent factions that continue to this day.
Attending students include sweet, erudite Jimmy Jack (John Keating). A treasured member of the Irish Rep family, the actor once again inhabits his role, credibly dreaming through his days, executing drunken falls to rival Chaplin. A glimpse of hidden loneliness is heartrending. Dairymaid Maire (Mary Wiseman), is skeptically affianced to Manus, who with neither a paying job or home of his own seems a bad risk. Earthy, pragmatic and eventually knocked sideways by love, the actress is marvelous. Doaty (Owen Laheen) and Bridget (Oona Roche) know more about underground rebellion than they let on. And gentle, deaf mute Sarah (Erin Wilhelmi), taught by Manus to say her name triumphantly aloud in the first scene, Wilhelmi is touching and believable throughout.
Lieutenant Yolland (Raffi Barsoumian), Owen (Seth Numrich), Hugh (Sean McGinley)
When Owen translates British intentions phrase by phrase, he leaves out implicit threats. Except for Hugh and Manus, those present hear only what’s benign. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word…is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” (Mark Twain) Tasked with mapping the county, transforming Gaelic names to “proper” English, Owen finds himself replacing his own lilting language with words stripped of memory and history. “Translation is … a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” (Anthony Burgess) As we watch, the earth shifts beneath community and country.
Lieutenant Yolland falls in love with what he images to be a simpler life and warm people. He also falls in love with Maire who unexpectedly returns the feelings. Could the soldier possibly make a home in Ballybeg? A moonlight courtship with neither able to speak anything but isolated, inapplicable words is nonetheless one of the most eloquent, compellingly romantic scenes in theater. Both actors are sublime.
“Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?” Maire asks Hugh the next morning. The couple has been seen. There are consequences – some evident, others unresolved.
Raffi Barsoumian (Lieutenant Yolland), Mary Wiseman (Maire)
Imposing culture and religion on a people is about as topical as it gets today.
The cast is outstanding. In addition to earlier call-outs, Sean McGinley speaks multiple languages as if mother tongues. The actor makes misguided willingness to comply uncomfortable to observe. Inebriation often manifests subtly with veering imbalance and slight lag in focus. Literary parrying with Jimmy Jack is imbued with affection. As the lieutenant, Raffi Barsoumian sustains an aura of obliviousness or innocence. Verbal helplessness before Maire is beautifully plaintive.
Doug Hughes’ direction is so naturalistic, one forgets this is theater. Characters ostensibly using Gaelic speak English onstage in the same scene with those speaking English AS English. That we can distinguish between and discern lack of comprehension is a marvel. Two-hander parentheses manifest oral bewilderment, intensifying emotion. Drunkenness is masterfully portrayed. Characters arrive whole. Use of the stage/schoolroom feels authentic.
Charlie Corcoran’s spare set is just what the production needs to atmospherically frame dramatization.
Costumes by Alejo Vietti are exactly as they should be, dirt, rips, patches and all. Sound design and original music by Ryan Rumery & M. Florin Staab subtly contribute wherever employed. Michael Gottlieb’s lighting design is subliminally effective/manipulative.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Owen Laheen (Doaty), Mary Wiseman (Maire), ERin Wilhelmi (Sarah), Oona Roche (Bridget),
John Keating (Jimmy Jack), Owen Campbell (Manus), Sean McGinley (Hugh)
The Friel Project: Translations by Brian Friel
Directed by Doug Hughes
Through December 31, 2023
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
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