UW-Milwaukee’s ‘Translations’ Depicts a Struggle for Understanding in 1840s Ireland
Words are walls in UW-Milwaukee’s ‘Translations’
The scene opens on a class between a teacher and singular pupil, trying with difficulty to articulate the phrase “My name is Sarah.” Their work takes place in a shabby barn-like building, strewn with hay and scattered with a few weather-beaten chairs (scenic design by Stephen Roy White), the home of the local hedge school. As the play unfolds, this thrown-together schoolroom becomes a haven for denizens of the small town who struggle to remain in the past, while the events of the town outside rush on into a violent future.
Brian Friel’s play reconstructs a moment in Irish history, in a small town in County Donegal just prior to the onslaught of the potato famine. English soldiers occupy the territory to create a standardized map of the region; standardization goes hand in hand with re-identifying the country with English names, undercutting the Irish language within its own territory. One of these soldiers, the handsome young Lieutenant Yolland (Bryson Langer), has interest in learning Irish and bridging the gap left by language, an interest that leads to a romance with a local girl, and subsequent retaliation from a pair of Irish resistors.
UW-Milwaukee’s production, under the deft direction of Jenny Wanasek, emphasizes both the humor and heartache felt by characters separated by the language barrier. The light-hearted scene between Maire (Emily Schneider) and Yolland as they flirt and woo without more than a few words being understood contrasts painfully with that of an irate soldier (Nick Wise) threatening villagers with words they are unable to comprehend. In addition, Sarah, played earnestly by Alyson Robinson, doesn’t receive enough time for her story to be fully explored; she ends in a silence that forebodes the bleak future of the townspeople as their language and lifestyle erode before them.