Who: SU Drama
Where: 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY
When: Through November 23rd
Tickets: $17 (Senior and Students), $19 (Adults)
Review by Max O'Connell
The inability to communicate is a major recurring theme in the works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, and it defines Translations, the 1980s play by “Irish Chekhov” Brian Friel. Friel’s play is filled with characters who can’t see past their own point of view, which leads to disaster and disillusionment.
That’s a terrific dynamic for actors to play, and that feeling is heightened by the characters’ actual inability to communicate (the actors speak English, but the characters speak Gaelic). Pity, then, SU Drama’s production of Translations is only partially successful at realizing it.
The play tells the story of English imperialism in 1833 Ireland, in the town of Baile Beag. Alcoholic schoolmaster Hugh (Craig Kober) and his lame son Manus (Johnny McKeown) teach Greek and Latin to the townspeople, but Hugh refuses to teach English to his students.
When Hugh’s son Owen (Max Miller) returns after six years in Dublin, he brings with him two English officers: arrogant cartographer Captain Lancey (Moogie Brooks), and idealistic Lt. Yolland (Derek Boyer Goh), who are tasked with remapping Ireland using exclusively English names.
Yolland is entranced by the beauty of the country, and has qualms about Anglicizing the Gaelic names of the landmarks. Things are complicated when, in spite of a language barrier, Yolland falls in love with Mairé (Whitney Crowder), Manus’s girlfriend.
The production gets off to a rough start. Much of Translations’s first act is devoted to setting up the Irish milieu, but while the Irish home looks effectively broken-down and director Geraldine Clark has competently staged the action, only half of the actors are up to task. Besides the difficulty of young American actors mastering an Irish accent (which only Miller and Matt Maretz as minor character Jimmy Jack come close to), the performances are wildly inconsistent. McKeown makes for a deeply empathetic and spirited Manus, and Crowder’s romantic Mairé is a highlight. But aside from Maretz, most of the supporting characters are weak.
As the mute Sarah, Jesse Roth never sells the frustration and fear of struggling with her impediment. Instead, she overplays her timidity, playing more on feeling rather than action and choice. It’s a character that’s supposed to be repressed and prone to fading into the background, but her meekness is too visible. Worse is Tom Hayes as jovial fool Doalty, who frantically mugs in the quiet moments and plays an unconvincing drunk in the raucous ones. In a play that’s about the clash between the working-class Irish and imperial British, it’s a problem when the actors can’t fully represent two major facets of 1800s Irish life (the silenced voice of women and the fun-loving drunkard).
The biggest liability to the play is Kolber as Hugh, the backbone of the traditional Irish community and the melancholy reminder of what’s being lost. Kolber’s character is frequently drunk, but you’d never know it if the dialogue didn’t reference it. And while there’s a certain suspension of disbelief needed in university productions when young actors play older characters, it’s problematic that Hugh seems younger than his sons. The stubbornness of his character feels more like recitation of lines than any sort of passion. There’s a lack of engagement between him and his fellow actors (which is different from the characters’ struggle to communicate), and the play sags because of it.
Translations picks up near the end of the first act, as the narrative refocuses on the uneasy partnership of the British soldiers (both quite good) and Owen. As soon as the lively Miller enters the play, the energy picks up and the fuzzily rendered conflict becomes more palpable. Miller plays Owen as a man who’s pulled from all sides, torn between his desire to bring Ireland into modern times and his fear that Irish culture will be lost to the British rule. When disaster strikes and Captain Lancey becomes the face of British tyranny, Miller’s fear for his brother, his father, and for the villagers of Baile Beag brings the tension to breaking point. It’s the most successful articulation of a major concern in the play: whether the Irish should collaborate with the British, or whether they should resist the eradication of their culture.
Also excellent is the sweet but doomed romance between Yolland and Mairé in a scene that requires the two actors to rely on gazes and actions instead of language to profess their love. It’s a beautiful scene made more meaningful by how poorly the other characters communicate with each other. It’s just too bad that all of Translations can’t match its most indelible moments. Instead, it see-saws between the performances that successfully capture that conflict between two cultures and those that don’t even represent one.