By - Feb 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Russ Bickerstaff


Language rarely gets the center stage in any major theatrical production. Even in the best scripts, language is far too busy conveying meaning to call much attention to itself. With Translations, Irish playwright Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa) has deftly coaxed language into the spotlight with charm and passion in a story of love and loss in the slow fade out of a culture in decline. The Milwaukee Rep continues its 2006-2007 season with a powerful production of the drama on its main stage.

The play is set in a meticulously detailed Hedge School in County Donegal of rural Ireland in 1833. As the lights rise to illuminate the beginning of the first act, Manus (Jonathan Gillard Daly) is working with a woman named Sarah (Colleen Madden). She has great difficulty speaking. With great struggle, she manages to whisper her name and where she’s from. Madden doesn’t speak much in the role, but she’s always saying something. Subtle glances and movements convey a great deal in an excellent performance by Madden.

From humble beginnings between student and teacher, the play broadens rather quickly into a large ensemble play. A particularly sharp Torrey Hanson plays educated Irish native Owen who has moved away to England. He has returned to County Donegal with British soldiers to help them rename the geography so that it can be spoken in clear British English. As a native Irishman, he is assisting British Lieutenant Yolland (talented Chicago actor John Hoogenakker) in the job. Yolland is quite taken with Ireland’s charm, which contrasts against the more progressively minded Owen. Irishman-turned-Brit plays against the Brit-becoming-Irish in an interesting thematic dynamic. When it becomes clear that Yolland is falling in love with local woman Maire (Leah Curney), things get considerably more complicated for everyone involved.

The Irish in County Donegal all speak Gaelic, so Owen is acting as translator. Friel wouldn’t have much of an audience for the play if most of it was spoken in a dying language, so everyone speaks English. This has the strange effect of making it seem like the British and the native Irish could understand each other in the play if they’d just stop and listen. It’s a casual absurdity that keeps conversations between British and Irish accents interesting for the entire length of the play.

A talented cast plays out the intricate interplay between many different shades of character as one culture takes over another. James Pickering is strong as a highly educated Irishman named Hugh who teaches at the school and spends much of his spare time drunk. There’s quite a bit in this play spoken in Latin and he’s usually he one instigating it. His students include a weaselly farmer named Doalty (a clever Jonathan Wainwright), a clever girl named Bridget (Sarah Sokolovic, back from New York for the role) and, of course, the highly progressive Maire. As all struggle to be able to recite Latin etymological derivations on a moment’s notice for their shrewd teacher, Maire asks why they cannot be taught English, as it is so quickly becoming the language of the world. Curney is quite striking in the role. Maire wants to learn English because she longs to move to America. Of course, everything gets called into question when she falls for Yolland. Her performance here recalls shades of her performance as the female lead in the APT’s recent production of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, much like that play, it all ends in tears for Translations. The play slowly fades out as Hugh recites lines from a dead language in slow, somber repetition as lights fade. It’s the slow, wistful cultural end everyone knows is coming. The inevitability of the ending does not detract in any way from its emotional force. VS

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Translations runs now through February 11th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. Tickets range in price and can be purchased by calling the box office at 414-224-9490 or online at

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