Like any other nourishing Irish stew, “Translations” requires some patience as it develops its flavors. So let your ear grow accustomed to the actors’ sometimes-mumbled County Donegal accents and your theater synapses to the sleepy opening scene, set on the dirt floor of a “hedge school” in a barn house in 1833. And soon enough, Brian Friel’s tale of the suppression of Irish language and culture via the cruel ministrations of British military rule will begin to reveal its estimable strengths.
These include, in director Matt Torney’s rewardingly atmospheric production for Studio Theatre, a character-rich account of rural Irish life before the catastrophic potato famine of the 1840s, in an era when the British Empire was at its pinnacle, and determined to bring the restive Irish to heel. And in due course, too, some lovely portrayals take fuller shape, of the adult students in the school and of the family of their headmaster, Hugh, played with authentically fustian authority by Bradley Armacost.
In “Translations,” the big, booted foot on the neck of Ireland manifests itself as the British effort to eradicate Irishness, one syllable at a time. A British mapmaking team arrives in the community of Baile Beag, and its mission is to standardize the names of Ireland’s landmarks and towns — in English. (It will soon be called “Bally Beg,” a place Friel fans know well.) When the team’s orthographer, one Lt. Yolland (Cary Donaldson), falls in love with a local lass (Molly Carden) eager for her life to begin, the indignant flame of tribalism is ignited, with the tragic results that usually accompany such clashes of the powerful and powerless.
Friel, author of such vibrantly lyrical works as “Faith Healer” and “Dancing at Lughnasa,” depicts the Anglo-Irish divide in “Translations” as one enormous failure to communicate. The play boils down the struggle to make oneself comprehensible to a series of a vignettes: young Sarah (Megan Graves), as a result of physical or emotional handicap, is unable to articulate the simplest sentences, while crusty town inebriate Jimmy Jack (Martin Giles) distracts himself from loneliness by cooking up esoteric stories of his personal relationships with Greek gods. Hugh, meantime, comically insists on his rustic pupils grasping conjugation in Latin, just as Capt. Lancey (Jeff Keogh), tin-eared leader of the British team, thinks the best way to get through to the uncomprehending locals is to shout at them slowly in English.
The tragicomedy locates the pathos of Bally Beg in Matthew Aldwin McGee’s learned, lovesick Manus, the son Hugh overlooks in favor of Owen (Erin Gann), who has returned, pockets full, as the soldiers’ interpreter; some of the play’s best moments occur as Owen is compelled to edit both sides of the conversations — yet another subversion of language — to keep relations even-keeled. (Torney’s deft direction accommodates the fact that this play of misapprehension is written almost entirely in English). We see, too in the portraits of the brothers, played with transparent emotional clarity, that candid conversation is not their forte: the conduct between them is best represented by the way they have to try to “read” one another’s behavior, with less than ideal consequences.
It takes some curiosity about this turbulent period of Irish history, or with the political ramifications of colonization, or with the affairs of a culture that holds literature and learning on a high pedestal, to become fully engaged in the events of “Translations.” The creative team helps you along, in the realistic physical environment it creates, chiefly through Debra Booth’s vividly rough-hewed set and costumes by Wade Laboissonniere that look as if they were woven with threads spun from the backs of Bally Beg sheep.
Ultimately, you’ll find more satisfaction the more prepared you are to savor the main course — Friel’s own, meticulous language. On this score, “Translations” easily meets all of the nutritional standards for a discerning palate.
Translations, by Brian Friel. Directed by Matt Torney. Set, Debra Booth; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Keith Parham; sound, Palmer Hefferan; production stage manager, Allie Roy. With Caroline Dubberly, Joe Mallon. About 2 hours 25 minutes. $20-$69. Through April 22 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.