One of the many virtues of Irish writer Brian Friel's plays is that they encourage terrific ensemble acting.
All 10 performers in Friel's "Translations" have rich roles to play, and a skilled cast -- like the one appearing at Columbia's Rep Stage -- can make you feel as if you're watching a true community. When you meet them, you feel as if these downtrodden characters have been together forever, then you watch them being forever blown apart in Friel's fictional Ballybeg.
Actually, the Irish name is "BaileBeag," and it's worth noting. The crisis of the play, set in a Gaelic-language community in 1833, comes when the British arrive in Ireland to map the country (the better to tax everyone) and rename the places (so the Brits will always know where they are). What's in a name? In "Translations," everything: history, identity, honor, soul.
It's a beautifully written play, with strands about culture -- on many levels -- that are thoughtfully played by director Kasi Campbell's admirably balanced cast.
The actors here are all colorful talkers, which is a good thing in a play that is very much about language. English, Gaelic, Latin, Greek and even sign language are used at one time or another. Yet, everything is clear as a bell to the audience -- if not always among the characters.
A number of dramas are being played out in BaileBeag's hedge school, a secret place where Catholics educated themselves in violation of the British Penal Codes.
A curly-locked colleen named Maire (Maia DeSanti) wants Manus (Steven Carpenter) to apply for a teaching position at the "legitimate" new school so they can be married. Manus refuses because his father, Hugh (Leo Erickson), wants the job. The frisky Doalty (Eric Schoen) and Bridget (Katie Barrett) boast breathlessly about disrupting the British survey, while old Jimmy Jack (Bill Largess) studies Greek and Latin texts and Sarah (Jennifer Davis-Ford) practices saying her name.
All of this takes a back seat when Manus' successful brother Owen (Brian McMonagle) returns from Dublin as a translator for the British army, which has come to BaileBeag to rename everything. Owen (along with Lancey, the imperious British commander played by Eric A. Leffler) would seem to be the villain of the piece. But McMonagle's affable Owen thinks he's helping his backward hometown move into the 19th century.
Looking at designer Lynn Steinmetz's deliberately grubby costumes and Robin Stapley's mildewed set, you can see Owen's point: The people aren't thriving.
The story twists when Maire, frustrated with Manus, begins to fall for a strapping English soldier named George (Tim Fullerton), and he for her.
Trouble is, they don't speak each other's language, so it's beautiful but painful to watch them project their (very different) dreams on one another. DeSanti and Fullerton are wonderful here, playing their scenes together with an intoxicating eagerness that yields irony.
With the help of Marianne Meadows' lights and Neil McFadden's sound design -- and an ensemble that smartly handles all of the linguistic and atmospheric challenges -- Campbell pulls out of Friel's play a rich sense of place, and of loss.
Rep Stage, the professional theater-in-residence at Howard Community College, presents "Translations" through Oct. 10. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $6 to $19. Information: 410-772-4900.