Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Black Mirror Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Salt, Root, and Roe

Duncan Phillips, Sean Michael, Charles E. Winning,
and Joseph Garner

Photo by Sharon Corcoran
When you're being colonized, they won't always tell you about it in advance. Brian Friel's Translations (first performed in 1980) teaches that lesson remorselessly, in a one-room "hedge-school" in the backwaters of Ireland in 1833. The potato famine is still decades away, and all the late nights of fanciful drinking on stage seem merely poetic, even as English military surveyors cast an appraising eye on the Emerald Isle. Madeline Finn directs this new staging, giving each of her characters an unbreakable spirit, even as they saddle one another with impossible expectations.

We saw a similar, subtle colonization in this country 200 years earlier, when the Puritans arrived in New England. But of course it wasn't "New England" to the people who were already living here at the time. In Translations, at the .ZACK Theatre, the people in this village of Baile Beag (or Ballybeg, as it's soon to be renamed) slowly grasp that their whole heritage is being rewritten for the benefit of the British Empire.

Friel's Irishmen drink a lot, so in spite of their fierce independence, they also tend to ruin every plan they make. We used to call this "tragi-comic," though perhaps "theater of addiction" will someday be the preferred term. Still, the storytelling is undeniably beautiful: Manus, the young schoolteacher, has his own romantic plans invaded by one of the British mapmakers, a Lieutenant Yolland. Joseph Garner provides electric idealism as Manus; and Jesse O'Freel lends an irresistible charm as Yolland. He doesn't start drinking heavily until act two, after going native (not like the daft missionary brother, ten years later, in Friel's 1990 memory play Dancing at Lughnasa). But it's the loss of sober wisdom and the un-regimenting effect of idyllic surroundings that will be the undoing of them in Translations.

Carly Uding plays Maire, the object of both men's affection, and she gets a great romantic comedy scene with Mr. O'Freel—a sort of "me Tarzan, you Jane" routine that's wonderfully economical in spite of the "bi-lingual" repetition. Almost everything's in English (for our benefit), but the two different nationalities speak different languages in the story. Still and all, baubles of Friel's great writing flash out from a fine cast which includes Charles E. Winning and Daniel Higgins.

Sean Michael plays the intermediary between the villagers and the army officers. As Owen, he keeps a cautious reserve between invaders and the people he grew up with, who welcome him back from his new home in Dublin. It's a performance that quietly weaves self-hatred together with contempt for both sides. And William Nolan, as the British captain, is grandly Dickensian, first in his false magnanimity and later in a horrific display of might.

Translations, through May 4, 2019, at the .Zack theater, 3224 Locust Street, just west of Compton Ave., St. Louis MO. There's a free, lighted parking lot immediately across Locust, but from the south, the Compton Avenue viaduct (south of I-64) is temporarily closed for repaving. For tickets and information, visit

Cast (in order of appearance):
Manus: Joseph Garner
Sarah: Janine Norman
Jimmy Jack: Daniel Higgins
Maire: Carly Uding
Doalty: Duncan Phillips
Bridget: Maya Kelch
Hugh: Charles E. Winning
Owen: Sean Michael
Captain Lancey: William Nolan
Lieutenant Yolland: Jesse O'Freel

Creative Team:
Director: Madeline Finn
Assistant Directors: Dennis Corcoran and Michelle Rebollo
Lighting Designer: Clare Fairbanks
Sound Designer: Catherine Hopkins
Irish Language Coach: Dennis Corcoran
Set Designers: George Compas and Madeline Finn