‘Translations’ Comes to Life at the BCA (4 Stars)

“Translations”, written by Brian Friel. Directed by M. Bevan O’Gara. Presented by Bad Habit Productions at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through August 17.

I half-dreaded seeing this play – really, has anyone ever read a happy Irish play? – but “Translations” has enough light-hearted moments and interesting characters to make you forget, at least momentarily, that they’re all careening towards disaster. Set in 1833 in what is now Northern Ireland, “Translations” tells of the struggle between the countrymen who wish to preserve their native Gaelic and the British Army, whose campaign to anglicize the counties’ places to map out a common language is not welcome. When Maire, the long-suffering intended of the lame, impoverished Manus falls for George, one of the soldiers, it becomes the undoing of all of them.

Megan Kinneen’s sprawling, stupendous set deserves huge applause, as it sets the tone for the reality of the piece and sense of place. The actors (and director) make the most of it, using the catwalk as a quiet space to read and sprawl on various corners of the floor. PJ Strachmann’s gorgeous lighting design adds to the moody shifts of the play. Most of the action occurs in a home school, run by the bombastic, hard-drinking, larger than life Hugh (Stephen Cooper). Hugh is in love with the classics, and insists on teaching Greek, Latin and of course Gaelic, which frustrates the more forward-thinking Maire, who would like to learn English. Cooper is resplendent in the role. He has a big presence, at turns joyful and morose, and it is easy to see why his son, Manus, feels dispirited and small in comparison. Despite Manus’s loyalty, it is the arrival of Owen, Hugh’s other son, which brings him the greatest joy, even though Owen has arrived with two soldiers in tow. The soldiers’ inability to communicate with the locals is a source of great frustration for them, and serves as a metaphor for the gulf between the British and the Irish.

Patrick Varner, as George Yolland, manages to capture the soldier’s conflict at having to change the history of a country by renaming its landscape. He is both awkward and dignified, and his scenes with Owen (Matthew Barrett) have an easy rapport and flow. As Captain Lancey, Bob Mussett is chilling and appropriately villainous – he is a man doing his job, after all. Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, as Maire, conveys well the desperation and frustration of one who is caught between two worlds. As the mute Sarah (touchingly played by Margaret Clark) comes across Maire and George kissing in a field outside of a dance, well, in the words of the woman sitting in front of me, “This isn’t going to end well.”

Thanks to some deftly humorous performances, it’s not all doom and gloom. Stage veteran Kevin Fennessy, as Jimmy Jack, is sweetly hilarious as a dreamer in love with the Goddess Athene. Greg Maraio lights up the stage as Doyalty, and his scenes with Bridget (the feisty Gillian McKay-Smith) give the play some much needed levity.

As always with a piece set elsewhere, sometimes the accents are inconsistent, but the acting definitely is not. So successfully does the cast manage to create an alternate reality that when the lights came up, it was hard to leave. For more info, go to: http://badhabitproductions.org/shows/season-8-identity-discovery/translations/