Translations is set in a “hedge school” in Gaelic-speaking Baile Beag (Ballybeg in English), a small fictional community in the British-occupied Irish countryside in 1833. Two Royal Engineers from England arrive with a mission to map the country and standardize (anglicize) the place names. As the naming progresses, one of the engineers, Lt. Yolland, has a difficult time doing away with the Irish names — he falls in love with the beauty of the language, the culture of Ireland, and in particular, a local woman named Maire. Although they do not speak a common language, Yolland and Maire look forward to a life together — until Yolland mysteriously disappears.
The high point of the play, especially in this production, is the scene in which Yolland expresses his love for Maire by stating place names in Irish only to have Maire respond with her one English sentence about a maypole. The non-verbal communication of love is in the forefront and the power given language as a method of control is countered by Yolland’s and Maire’s transcendence beyond it. Brian Friel has famously said about Translations that it is “a play about language and only about language.” In this context, the broader themes of cultural imperialism and intergenerational misunderstanding cannot be divorced from the communications within and about them.
Friel’s classic is produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway with excellent acting, beautiful sets, and seemingly all the components that would lead to success. But this squeaky-clean production feels distant, too slow, and ultimately falls short of the writing’s great promise.