Watching The Woodford Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s “Translations,” I thought of all the great deaths in theater, and greater and more complex still, those deaths that are not of characters but of the ends of eras.
Chekhov, for instance, is a master of this. And so is Friel, whose play about the death of the Irish language is a lyrical and haunting examination of the power of language to sway a culture’s imagination and crystallize its identity.
“It is not the literal past, the facts of history, that shape us, but the images of the past embodied in language,” says Hugh (Walter Tunis), the teacher at the area’s “hedge school.”
Friel situates the play not at the moment of the Irish language’s death knell, but at the beginning of the end, with English soldiers arriving in the rural, northwestern Irish town of Baile Beag to make a standardized English map of the region that replaces the old Gaelic place names with literal English translations that lack the musicality and meaning of the original.
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Director Joe Ferrrell directs a layered and nuanced show that details the human side of the region’s impending linguistic decay, with different inhabitants of Baile Beag recognizing and responding to the infringement of the English on their words and land in different ways. Strong ensemble performances by some of the region’s best actors, plus rich technical elements, make this show one of the season’s best in the region.
Perhaps no character demonstrates the richness and sophistication of the region’s culture more than Jimmy, played with robust earnestness and humor by Joe Gatton. An older “student” at the hedge school, Jimmy dwells deeply in the classic literature of Greece and Rome. To Jimmy, the Gaelic gods walk side by side with the Greeks and Romans in stories and languages made rich and alive with imagination. That this trilingual scholar is made to look mute and uneducated highlights the English’s serious lack of appreciation for the highly evolved culture of the Irish.
The play also includes stirring performances by Tunis and Shayne Brakefield as his son and fellow teacher, Manus. Both father and son are protective and aware of what is at stake, even while Manus’ brother, played with vigor and, eventually, pathos by Michael Mau, works with the English as a translator and scribe of new place names.
Perhaps no one is more welcoming of the English presence than Maire, a girl who dreams of learning English so she can go to America. Maire’s role is a bit overplayed by Rachel Rogers, but her brightness and determination shine through, particularly in her romance with Lieutenant Yolland (Tom Phillips), one of the few British officers who sees the Irish people’s worth, even wanting to stay and live there.
Jason Sturgill’s rustic scenic design and Todd Pickett’s lighting design beautifully evoke the play’s geographic and historic setting, making the audience’s escape to 1833 Ireland a compelling invitation to dwell on the power of language.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.