Translations by Brian Friel. Directed by Garry Hynes. Scenic and costume design by Francis O'Connor. Lighting design by Davy Cunningham. Sound design by John Leonard. Original music by Sam Jackson. Cast: Niall Buggy, David Costabile, Alan Cox, Dermot Crowley, Michael Fitzgerald, Morgan Hallett, Geraldine Hughes, Susan Lynch, Graeme Malcolm, Chandler Williams.
It's the nature of language, alternately lyrical and longing, that provides not only the foundation for Brian Friel's play Translations, but also the rope by which it can hang itself. The torrents of words that fuel this messy masterpiece are not themselves vehicles of change, but the ways they're spoken or not spoken and comprehended or misunderstood means the difference between history lost and preserved, and a production that either scintillates or evaporates in the heat of its own misguided ideals.
In directing the new mounting (and second Broadway appearance) of Translations at the Biltmore, a coproduction of Manhattan Theatre Club (which produced the play's New York premiere in 1981) and New Jersey's McCarter Theatre Center, Garry Hynes has neither managed to fix the flaws that make this one of Friel's most-frustrating, least-realized works, nor fallen into any of the traps this compelling play cunningly sets. This turbulent mixture of linguistic and dramatic ingredients never coheres into a completely appetizing recipe on Hynes's watch, but her respectful, detailed work guarantees that the depicted world of 19th-century Ireland always at least satiates.
That's because she's chosen to highlight the play's epic romance, rather than merely focus on any of the tinier love stories that constitute it. The affair she considers central is the one between the people of Ireland and the heritage they're struggling to preserve against the encroaching English dominion in 1833. Of noticeably less importance is the relationship between aging language instructor Hugh (Niall Buggy) and the adult students he wants to install with a solid understanding of Irish, and even the triangle that forms between Hugh's son (David Costabile), the village girl (Susan Lynch) he's long taken to, and the young British officer (Chandler Williams) who also loves her but does not share her language.
In another production, the scene in which the girl and the soldier attempt to carry out their courtship without understanding the other's words might serve as the work's most identifiable heart. Not here. To Hynes, it's a comic trifle, a single, forgettable page in the more involved chronicle of England's attempt to hold sway over Ireland, and it's played by the performers with the knowledge that in the grand scheme of things, their words and actions don't mean a great deal. It's probably the least weighty treatment you'll see this season of a play's most important scene.
It is, however, typical of how Hynes disrupts expectations and forces you to examine events on her terms. She places far more importance on the story of Hugh's other son, Owen (Alan Cox), who's working with the British to redraw the map of Ireland and assign consistent, more pronounceable names to Irish locations. Owen's charge to both maintain tradition and pave the path to the future provides what emotional thrust this production generates, and leads it more or less successfully from its hazy opening scenes to the chilling finale, in which Hugh inconclusively assesses the impact of this kind of change in both the long and the short term.
Unfortunately, Hynes's interpretation is not ideal for examining the human cost of progress that is Friel's true subject. Most of the actors have clearly defined their characters as observers or participants in the cold-but-warming war the play presents, but none has the opportunity to register as more than a tiny droplet in history's tidal wave. The personal detail that would better inform Hynes's wider view of who these people are and what they represent simply isn't present in the writing; one can't zoom out on this action without losing all perspective on what's happening and why.
Most of Friel's plays do allow that approach - last year's revival of Faith Healer, for example, demonstrated how three characters' four monologues could circumscribe whole vistas of human perceptions and experiences while retaining a fireside intimacy. Here, Hynes's attempts to yank the action from the dank and dirty barn where Hugh holds his lessons (Francis O'Connor designed the oddly expansive set, as well as the period-capturing costumes) are thwarted, as if Friel is silently demanding that what naturally desires to be magnified remain microscopic.
The actors, pulled in so many different directions, deliver performances as accomplished as they are ineffectual. Williams, a complete blank slate as the young soldier, is the only one who captures none of his role's essential essence - he conveys no sense whatsoever of being trapped between a world he wants to destroy and embrace, and his eventual turnaround is utterly unconvincing. Cox, as Owen, possesses the progressive qualities Williams lacks, and this production would probably be more effective if they switched roles. Lynch finds charming complexities in his love interest, who's torn between life and love in Ireland and fortune in America, though Costabile only occasionally emerges from the background as the man she's destined to leave behind. Dermot Crowley and Michael Fitzgerald respectively bring the right elderly and youthful energy to a pair of students.
Buggy projects no authority throughout most of his performance as Hugh, the play's rudderless, barely noticeable lead role, though he shines brightly in the riveting final scene that transforms life's ebb and flow into an oppressive ocean voyage. The stage effects, which make full use of Davy Cunningham's reserved lighting, are a distinct turnaround from the rest of the show, but Buggy's steering allows the play to maintain its course right through until the final moments - no small feat.
Perhaps even more important is Morgan Hallett as Sarah, a young girl only now putting words to her thoughts. Her halting speech (which Hallett delivers with lacerating acuity) reminds us of the communication difficulties that can often exist even within a single language. Much of her trouble arises from a desire to speak out hampered by other forces that want her to remain silent, a trouble that mirrors that of Translations - despite Hynes's impressive efforts - all too well.