Alan Cox and Morgan Hallett in Translations
(© Joan Marcus)
Alan Cox and Morgan Hallett in Translations
(© Joan Marcus)
The frisson that comes from a glamorous film star taking the stage may be initially electrifying, but the spark that ignites a theater from watching a superbly cast ensemble of actors -- with nary a marquee name among them -- is altogether more satisfying. That experience is occurring nightly at the Biltmore Theatre, courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club and the McCarter Theatre's exquisite co-production of Brian Friel's poetic 1980 drama Translations, under the sturdy stewardship of Tony Award winner Garry Hynes.

From the moment the motley citizens of the small Irish town of Ballybeg assemble in the local hedge school -- a vast dirt-covered barn sublimely rendered by set designer Francis O' Connor -- Hynes immerses us in the specific landscape of Friel's play. It is 1833, and the townspeople cling firmly to speaking only Irish -- except in the hedge school. There, the students -- the surprisingly erudite Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley), the puckish Doalty (Michael FitzGerald) and his girlfriend Bridget (Geraldine Hughes), the headstrong Maire (Susan Lynch), and the almost-mute Sarah (Morgan Hallett) -- slowly then feverishly begin to prepare for another session of Latin and Greek under the tutelage of the pompous, usually drunk Hugh (Niall Buggy) and his lame, diffident son Manus (David Costabile). Lost in ancient conjugations, they are barely aware of the ground shifting under them. Ireland, as they know it, may soon cease to exist.

The ruling British, in the guise of the stern Captain Lancey (Graeme Malcolm) and the shy, dreamy Captain Yolland (Chandler Williams), have recently arrived to make a new map of the country, standardizing all the country's colorful town names into English. They are aided in their task by Owen (Alan Cox), Hugh's younger son, who left the village six years ago to become a prosperous shop owner in Dublin, but has offered to be the Army's translator. Moreover, the men and women of Ballybeg have all heard that a new National school, where children will be instructed all-day and only in English, will open shortly. But none of these seemingly simple souls foresee the larger consequences of these two developments, nor can they imagine the smaller, more immediate changes in their world that will arise from the British army's arrival.

As in much of Friel's work, Translations is short on such conventional dramatic elements as plot or action -- not to mention a tidy ending -- instead asking audiences to bask in his use of language. The play deals in large part with the absolute need of humans to communicate, but Friel also understands the imprecision, and even occasional uselessness, of words. In the show's most beautiful scene, which occurs right after intermission, Maire and Yolland are able to express their blossoming attraction to each other in ways that transcend the fact that neither speaks the other's language.

A delicate work, Translations requires a perfectly in-sync ensemble to bring out its depth, all of whom must also resist the urge to transform the work into a look-at-me-I'm-acting showcase. When Translations was previously mounted on Broadway in 1995 (a production I didn't see), the cast included such well-known performers as Brian Dennehy, Dana Delany, and Donal Donnelly. Yet, the show barely lasted a month.

Hynes' cast, comprised of actors that most American audiences will be unfamiliar with, eschews showiness for the most part, with only Crowley and FitzGerald occasionally overplaying their characters' enthusiasm. If there are firsts among equals, however, one must heap particular praise upon Buggy, whose Hugh is simultaneously unlikable and sympathetic; Cox, whose ultimately rueful Owen centers the work; Lynch, who time and again pierces the heart as Maire; and Williams, who fully captures Yolland's youthful mix of romanticism and realism.

Translations isn't what one would call a conventionally crowd-pleasing piece of theater; it requires a certain commitment and concentration on the audience's part, and its failure to wrap up its pivotal plot point is admittedly frustrating. While a few more tickets would be sold with even one movie star in the cast, MTC deserves our praise for taking the high road and presenting this unusually fine production.