Syracuse University Drama explores the nature of language in "Translations"

Review: The student cast members of "Translations" deliver commendable performances despite the unique challenge of speaking in different languages and in different accents.

"Translations", Syracuse University Drama’s second production of the season, tackles the issues of language and culture in Ireland in 1833, highlighting the power of language to unite or divide and its tie to heritage.

Written by Tony Award-winning playwright Brian Friel, "Translations" follows the lives of Manus and his father Hugh — both run a hedge school teaching Latin and Greek, but not English, to a few of the townspeople — as well as some of their students. Things go awry when Hugh’s other son arrives in Baile Beag from Dublin with some English soldiers on a mission to map the area and Anglicize the Gaelic names of the town.

Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Finlon
Sarah (Jesse Roth) and Manus (Johnny McKeown) perform in the SU Drama production of 'Translations.'

While the play’s plot is not fraught with intense action, the actors and actresses expertly bring to light the play’s subtle conflicts of English vs. Irish, tradition vs. progress and the struggle to find a place in this world.

Johnny McKeown and Max Miller, playing the pair of brothers Manus and Owen, respectively, underscore the nation’s struggle to cling to its cultural traditions in the midst of progress and cultural imperialism of the British. Their characters’ differing viewpoints on Britain’s influence on their small town reflect the many opinions of the people during this time in Ireland’s history. Miller does a particularly magnificent job at depicting his character’s inner turmoil of respecting his heritage while looking toward the future.

The play’s most touching moments are centered around the budding romance between Baile Beag native Maire (Whitney Crowder) and British Lieutenant Yolland (Derek Boyer Goh). Comically, the two struggle to interact with one another despite the immense barrier that language presents. While the two cannot understand a word the other is saying, they can sense their feelings for one another.

This ensemble drama requires a cast of actors and actresses who provide insight into the social fabric of this colorful small town. The student actors and actresses of this cast deliver. Goh’s performance as the romantic Lieutenant Yolland is the most memorable. While providing comic relief as well as raising important questions, Goh manages to depict the play’s subtle themes during his time on stage.

This three-act play takes place in one location: the hedge school run by Manus and his father. The set, designed by Jen Medina-Gray, is simple yet interesting. The decrepit, barren structure of the school is reflective of the crumbling Gaelic culture. The understated quality of the set brilliantly falls in line with the subtlety of the play itself.

Director and SU drama professor Geraldine Clark handles this play with care and expertise. While Friel’s work is heart wrenching and poignant, it is also particularly funny. Clark handles both aspects of the play with reverence, a balancing act that is no easy feat.

Due to the Irish accents and Gaelic dialects, not to mention the portions of Latin and Greek, it is difficult to understand the actors and actresses at some moments. However, as the audiences gets accustomed to hearing the dialect, it easier to grasp what they are saying. And the plot moves slowly at some moments, leaving the audience wanting more.

"Translations" is an interesting exploration of language and its allegiance to culture, as well as the importance of its preservation. SU Drama’s production, while a little dry at times, is a thought-provoking and interesting experience for theater-goers as well as those new to the theater.

"Translations" will be playing at the Arthur Storch Theatre through November 23rd. Tickets can be purchased online.

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