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Review of "Translations"

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Review of "Translations"- originally printed in the Sacramento Bee

'Translations' is a rich tale of a struggle to endure


February 26, 2007
Section: SCENE
Page: D1


By   Jim Carnes

Bee Staff Writer

THEATER REVIEW

--A lot can be lost in translation, but next to nothing is lost in the excellent City Theatre production of Brian Friel's "Translations," a play about the threatened end of an already marginalized culture and language that opened Friday.

It plays out upon a realistic dirt-and-barn set designed by Karyn Garnica and is evocatively lit by Shawn Weinsheink and appropriately costumed by Kim McCann and Lenore Justman. Directed by David Harris, it's an elegant, loving, literate staging of a seductive and riveting drama.

Like a lot of Irish plays, it's word-heavy -- it's all about words, really.

Set in 1883 in the fictional Irish town of Baile Beag (which is about to be renamed Ballybeg), it takes place at a critical moment when the British attempt to eradicate the language of the Irish. National schools, where English would be the only mode of instruction, were being established to replace the "hedge schools" such as the one in which the action here takes place. In addition, a detail of English engineers has begun surveying the country, drawing up new maps and "standardizing" (that is, Anglicizing) all the place names.

This is more than merely a lament about the death of the Irish language or a political statement about the colonial relationship between the British and the Irish. It's about being poor and without hope, about love and the love of learning. And it's about the importance of language, the significance of words, the power of their use and misuse.

The dialogue is delivered in English, but Friel makes it clear when a character is speaking Gaelic -- twice to special effect, once when a translator purposefuly misinterprets a message and again when two people falling in love find they have too many words and struggle to communicate their feelings.

This is a beautiful piece of writing, rich in detail and characters.

There's Hugh Mor O'Donnell, the school master, fluent in Latin, Greek, English and Gaelic. Lew Rooker, big and confident, embodies him perfectly.

Hugh has two sons, the slightly disabled Manus, well played by Crom Saunders, and Owen, played with assurance by Amir Sharafeh. Manus sublimates his own desires (including love) to help his father run the school that sustains their culture. Owen has left Baile Beag for London but returns as an interpreter for the survey team.

The British are represented by Capt. Lancey, somewhat overdramatized by Tim Church, and Lt. George Yolland, who falls in love with Ireland (and an Irish lass), likably played by Anthony Person.

The villagers include Sarah Johnny Sally, nearly silent because of a speech impediment, who, as played by Krystal Strachan, speaks volumes about the difficulty of communicating; Jimmy Jack Cassie, the classics-loving clown given life by Joe Larrea; Maire Chatach, who not only captures Manus' heart but that of Yolland, to dire consequences, beautifully played by Allison Hoggard; Bridget, whose constant fear of impending tragedy eventually will be realized, fetchingly played by Dominique Jones; and Doalty Dan Doalty, a simple farmer who knows it's not how much you have to defend but why you defend it that matters, charmingly played by Michael Murphy.