Brian Friel’s “Translations” is caught up in the fluidity of language--the rippling, rolling tumble of Irish Gaelic, the distant poetry of ancient Greek and Latin, the clipped precision of British English.
Language is also the stumbling place for many of the youthful cast assembled by director Olive Blakistone for the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s staging of “Translations.” Friel’s tale of love and cultural warfare continues through May 25 at the Solana Beach theater.
The play is set in County Donegal, Ireland, where in 1833 learning took place in a “hedge-school,” a place that is, in the vision of scenic designer Tom Perkins, no more inviting than a neat but straw-filled barn with a few old crates for seats and lap-size chalk boards for scrawling out multiplication tables.
Here the Gaelic-speaking students of Baile Beag meet when their chores are done to master, not the English the ruling British might have them know, but Greek and Latin. It’s as if their schoolmaster--when not succumbing to the lure of the bottle--would build in their minds a buffer of Greek goddesses, futile protection from the harsh realities of their own lives.
But the soldiers come anyway. Two British officers on a “mapping” expedition, a thinly concealed effort to Anglicize the lilting Irish names for country crossings, bridges and roads, dividing up the land for easier taxation by the British Crown.
With poverty so constantly upon their heels, potato blight a yearly threat that keeps young and old sniffing the wind for the “sweet smell” of rotting vines, greater taxation is perhaps the worst implication of the officers’ presence.
But Friel uses the changing of the names and a sensitive British lieutenant who falls in love with Baile Beag to weave his sad story. The sickening irony of human beings tormented by an unknown factor that turns them into enemies and conquerors is tucked within the play’s generously ladled language, while a star-crossed love story highlights Friel’s subtle messages.
“Translations” demands not only that we understand both the Gaelic-speaking and the British characters, of course, but that we also know they are speaking different languages, and cannot understand each other.
This illusion is easily achieved by Blakistone’s cast, but the Irish and British accents and the streams of Latin and Greek recitations keep the actors more than occupied. Several succumb to the mental demands of their speech by failing to achieve any naturalness of movement.
The largely student cast’s collective inexperience keeps the watcher distanced from the play. Some, notably Tom Sherman as the son who sells out to the British just a little bit, and Jack Hamblin as his deeply churning, honor-bound brother, seem simply too young for their parts.
James Holcomb, older and more experienced, just never hits a note of believability as the drunken schoolmaster.
There are exceptions. Denise Ryan, whose Irish birth gives her a little advantage, plays the beautiful young Maire with a graceful sensitivity. John Grzesiak, as the British soldier who falls in love with Maire and her country, also carries himself well enough to plumb the deeper emotions of Friel’s script, making their brief love scene a searing poetic statement of longing and helplessness.
The scene, suffused in delicate light by designer Barth Ballard, drives home the senseless pain of the Irish-British situation. And it triggers thoughts of other scenes haunted by the same divisions that might be set anywhere around the globe.
Tom Kilroy supplies some colorful character acting as the crusty dreamer Jimmy Jack, and Sharon Corbett delivers a poignant performance as the shyly withdrawn Sarah, who cannot speak with words but conveys her very soul through wounded eyes.
Debby Dillon, Ronald B. Lang and Russ Noel fill out the cast with varying degrees of success.
None of the acting is terrible in this production; it is just that some performers needed more time to develop the fullness of their characters. And they are not helped by costumes (Kathryn Gould) that barely evoke the period, or uniforms of camping soldiers that look like they are hot off the ironing board.
“Translations” is a challenging work, dense enough to entertain and intrigue despite the shaky production North Coast has managed. Blakistone should be commended and encouraged for once again risking failure to mount quality dramatic literature, even if, this time, the local acting pool seems to have let her down. “TRANSLATIONS”
By Brian Friel. Directed by Olive Blakistone. Set design Tom Perkins. Costume design Kathryn Gould. Lighting design Barth Ballard. Sound design Marvin Read. With Jack Hamblin, Sharon Corbett, Tom Kilroy, Denise Ryan, Russ Noel, Debby Dillon, James Holcomb, Tom Sherman, Ronald B. Lang, John Grzesiak. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., with last performance at 2 p.m., May 25. North Coast Repertory Theatre, Lomas Santa Fe Plaza, Solana Beach.