There’s a lovely scene just before intermission that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It is 1833 in agricultural County Donegal Ireland, and two star-crossed lovers—Maire (Samantha Gonzalez), a young woman who speaks only Irish, and Lieutenant George Yolland (Trevor LaSalvia), a British soldier who speaks only English—have met in the woods in the heat of a sweetly passionate attraction. They seem blissfully oblivious to the fact that they come from opposite sides of a colonialism-driven divide.
There to interpret for them is Owen (Steven Kelly), a multilingual young Irish man, moonlighting from his job as a translator for the British army. In the script all three characters speak in English so that we the audience can understand them, even though Maire and George can’t understand each other. It’s an enthralling device. And the communication gap speaks volumes.
That’s but a glimpse into the high emotions and complex issues in Brian Friel’s play Translations, directed with acute sensitivity by Jodi Kanter, head of the George Washington University theater and dance program. Friel’s play is set in a fictional Irish village at the time when the forces of the Crown have come to impose British rule and change place names into the King’s English. As a documentary parable about colonialism, it is, sad to say, timeless—and this ardent student production does justice to the unjust story.
The action takes place in a barn being used as a schoolhouse, and Scenic Designer Jingwei Dai’s stone walls, wooden beams, and slatted windows and doors pull us into the down-to-earth dimension of the play. Lighting Designer Carl F. Gudenius nicely streams in daylight and dapples it invitingly, while Sound Designer Aria Nawab introduces folksy interludes of fiddle between scenes.
Two veteran Keegan Theatre Company actors are on board: Kevin Adams as the headmaster Hugh Mor O’Donnel, a man whose fondness for Greek and Latin is well matched by his fondness for drink; and Timothy Hayes Lynch as Jimmy Jack, a student much older than the others. The professional polish of their sparring interplay is a treat.
But the student cast more than holds its own connecting us vividly to their individuated characters: Thomas Martin as Hugh’s put-upon son (and Owen’s older brother) Manus; Katrin Baxter, Cara McErlean, and Jacob Pearce as the earnest and ebullient students Bridget, Sarah, and Doalty; and Connor Driscoll as British officer Captain Yancey, the bad cop to Owen’s good. Jacob Pearce in particular does some appealingly scene-stealing work as rebellious Doalty.
Costume Designer Kelvin Small creates an authentically rustic look for the Irish and an officiously pompous look for the encroaching English. And Dialect Coach Susan Lynskey deserves a shoutout in several tongues for the cast’s smooth handling of the Gaelic, Greek, and Latin that Friel freely inserts into this play.
A moving evocation of how community cohesion and tradition gets lost in translation to imperialism, Brian Friel’s Translations at George Washington University is well worth a look and listen to.
Running Time: About two hours 5 minutes, including one intermission.
Translations plays through Sunday afternoon February 18, 2018, presented by The Theatre & Dance Program at the George Washington University Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.