July 25, 2008

Keeping the Irish way alive in Translations
by Greg Boyle

Translations is like every good tale told by an Irishman. It has laughter and tears, hopes and regrets, fantasy and reality, whiskey and woe. Lofty sentiments are followed in the next breath by howling irreverence. It is a play grounded in real life, but in which the characters have discussions regarding the essence of language and culture. The ideas fly so fast that you can’t let your attention wander for fear of missing another gem of a notion.

Katie Gilchrist as Maire and Nathan Darrow as Lt. Yolland in Translations. (photo by Don Ipock Photography)

Playwright Brian Friel, whose plays are intimate examinations of the Irish experience, wrote Translations. Director Mark Robbins lets the story tell itself without gimmicks in the Actor’s Theatre KC production at City Stage at Union Station, and he keeps his cast of ten moving nimbly on the small stage.

The action takes place in County Donegal in 1833. That specific point in time is shortly after the English repealed the140-year-old law banning Catholics from schools. By 1833, the English had been ruling Ireland for over 600 years, but the native Irish still hadn’t accepted foreign domination, and had been marginalized in their own country. The vast majority lived as dirt-poor peasants, barely able to make rent.

That circumstance had not altered the Gaelic instinct for learning and literature. Medieval Irish monks had been the prime conservators of learning in Europe. The Romans had never conquered Ireland, so when the empire fell, as the unlettered tribes overran every hint of civilization, the Irish scribes copied all the ancient texts they could find. With that, the words would be preserved. In the centuries that followed and as the barbarians sought learning, it was the Irish monks who had retained the knowledge.

In the long years of the Catholic education ban, the Gaelic devotion to words had given rise to clandestine schools taught in barns or fields by local scholars. One of these schools, with its teachers and students, is the focus of the story.

The actors are marvelous, one and all. There is The Master, himself. As played by T. Max Graham, he is a typical pedant, pretentious and self-absorbed. His predilection for whiskey leads to some of the lighter moments in the show. Just watching his belly bounce on cue was a delight. His bright son, played by Matthew Rapport, a teacher in his own right, is a much more compassionate model. The second son, Owen, performed by Nick Gehlfuss, is the mover and shaker of the play, and is the most complex character in Translations. Gehlfuss deserves special praise for his handling of the multi-layered role.

Owen shows up unexpectedly one day in the company of the hated English army. He acts as translator for the English, who don’t speak Gaelic, and the Irish, who speak no English. The actors are all speaking English, but the characters don’t understand each other, except as Owen translates. We are flies on the wall as we watch Owen make apparently misleading translations at first, and we wonder whether he is a traitor. His main job is to assist the English in their renaming of the Irish countryside with names that English-speaking persons will recognize.

An empire knows that destroying a culture’s sense of identity is the final blow. Losing one’s words and names means losing everything that describes how a culture thinks of itself, both collectively and individually. Language isn’t merely how a culture communicates; it is an expression of how the culture thinks.

The three men of the family present three different ways of dealing with the realities of being a subjected people. The Master lives in his head. He and his prize student trade Latin and Greek quotes, and word roots. The student, Jimmy Jack, as played by Gary Holcombe, has the single-minded focus of a long-term alcoholic. The two of them live in a fantasy world. Manus, the teacher son, lives entirely in the present, caring for the needs of his father, and dreaming of nothing more than his own teaching job and getting married. Owen, the returning son, has seen the bigger world. He knows that major change needs to come to the villages. He also knows that the Irish have little or no understanding of much of their own local history. He is willing to let the past go, in hopes of an improved future.

You see some of the same mindsets played out in the other students. Foalty is a local clown, living in the present as well as he can manage. He and Bridget are energetic, bawdy peasants who love to play games with the minds of the English. Logan Ernstthal and Cinnamon Schultz raise the stage level of energy every time they enter. Maire is the one who wants out. She’ll take change however she can get it. Katie Gilchrist Langley makes us feel her yearning for something, anything.

The two Englishmen are total opposites. Michael Linsley Rapport plays Lancey as the typical arrogant minion of empire, dismissive and demeaning to the people under his control. Nathan Darrow’s Yolland is more Irish than English — dreamy, romantic, in love with the sound of words, even when he doesn’t know what they mean.

It would be easy to overlook Elana Kepner as Sarah. Her character is nearly mute, but in her silence she elegantly represents The Old Sod itself. She stands in silent witness of all that transpires for better and worse.

Translations is at City Stage through Aug. 31. It is enjoyable, interesting and stimulating entertainment. Call 816-235-6222 for more information or go to

Greg Boyle can be contacted at


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