Rep Stage's production of Brian Friel's "Translations," a sentimental ramble about the Anglicizing of 19th-century Ireland, is loaded with fine acting, nuanced and affecting. Kasi Campbell has directed with a sharp eye on the few strong points in the script. But without any substantive conflict or emotional exploration, Friel's play only intermittently engages your interest over the course of 2 1/2 hours.
What little story there is revolves around the arrival in County Donegal of a British military detachment to draw maps, a mission that involves changing Gaelic place names to English ones. This is, after all, 1833, when the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.
While the locals make it clear they find this an intrusion at best, one of the soldiers, George Yolland (Tim Fullerton), takes a shine to one of the lasses, Maire (Maia DeSanti), who in turn falls for him. Never mind that neither speaks the other's language: This is meant to be charming, though it comes off as a cliched plot-thickener. Don't tell me you can't see what kind of trouble is coming.
Ostensibly Friel is concerned with language--as a cultural identity and a means of articulating reality--and what happens when one tongue displaces another. But he never develops any of this, preferring instead to just dabble with bits and pieces. Take, for example, the character of Owen (the impressive Brian McMonagle), a local who's returned from six years in Dublin to serve as translator for the Brits. Is he put through any kind of test over the implications of what he's doing? Nope, just a minor metaphysical spasm, which passes quickly.
Friel is more preoccupied with the real subtext of his play, which can be summed up as: English bad, Irish good. As written, the former are either pompous brutes or shallow romantics, while the latter are just so darn noble. The Irish peasants may be dirt-poor and shoeless, but they forget about their misery when reciting Virgil or Homer in the original Latin or Greek.
Friel is very good at contrasting some of his characters, in particular Owen and Yolland, who become friends. Campbell develops those contrasts gradually and sensitively. She also seems to be saying that the primary relationships here are between individuals and the ways they speak, and she elegantly emphasizes the lyricism in the dialogue. Dramatically, though, it's all either inert or predictable.
McMonagle gives a graceful, warm performance rich in subtlety and humor. As Manus, Owen's brother, Steven Carpenter strikes a lovely balance, playing a handicapped teacher without self-pity or self-consciousness. DeSanti's Maire concisely suggests desperation, longing and hope. Leo Erickson gives Hugh, a schoolmaster as well as father to Owen and Manus, a humble dignity that plays nicely against the heroic tones in which the character is written.
Others in the ensemble, especially Bill Largess, Katie Barrett and Eric Schoen, deliver strong supporting work. Robin Stapley's set--a crumbling old stone house whose roof is suggested by open beams--is the right literal and figurative structure for this poem of a play. It's too bad that the play's poetry, like its politics and drama, is ultimately simplistic and inchoate.
Translations, by Brian Friel. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Lighting, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz; sound, Neil McFadden. With Jennifer Davis-Ford and Eric A. Leffler. Through Oct. 10 at Rep Stage in Columbia. Call 410-772-4900.