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Seanachai Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building


Famous Door Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

By Albert Williams

Thirty years ago this month, a demonstration supporting Northern Ireland’s unification with the Irish Republic erupted in violence when the demonstrators–members of the People’s Democracy, a leftist student group–were greeted by a mob of pro-British loyalists while marching from Belfast to Derry; by the end of that year, 1969, the British army had settled into Belfast for what proved to be a long, bloody, hard-fought battle in Ireland’s long war for independence from Britain.

Now, with “the troubles” seemingly curbed and a recent peace agreement showing signs of staying power, two finely acted revivals of works by Northern Irish playwrights–Derry-bred Brian Friel and Belfast-born Graham Reid–offer perspectives on the impact of Britain’s occupation of Ireland. First seen in Chicago in the mid-80s at the late, lamented Body Politic during its heyday as a center of Anglo-Irish theater, Friel’s Translations and Reid’s Remembrance are now playing side by side at the Theatre Building, an unplanned but illuminating piece of programming by the itinerant Seanachai and Famous Door theater companies. Set a century and a half apart, Seanachai’s exuberant, suspenseful Translations and Famous Door’s elegiac Remembrance remind audiences of the moral, economic, and cultural damage done to millions of people, both bystanders and participants, in the country’s all-but-official civil war.

Friel (whose Freedom of the City, about Northern Ireland’s 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, is playing in an extended run at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre) sets his story in 1833 in Baile Beag, County Donegal. The action takes place in a disused barn, the headquarters of a “hedge school” where Catholic peasants take lessons in arithmetic, writing, and the classics under the tutelage of the sometimes pickled pedagogue Hugh O’Donnell and his son Manus–lame, we learn, as the result of a childhood injury at the hands of his drunken da. Manus’s prodigal older brother Owen, now a Dublin dandy in top hat and green frock coat, has returned in the company of an English army officer, Lieutenant George Yolland, to translate the countryside’s colorful, sometimes chaotic place-names into standardized English for a new map.

As in his other plays–including Dancing at Lughnasa, Faith Healer, and Molly Sweeney–Friel revels in the flow of Irish speech, conveying the earthy warmth of the Gaelic language even though his dialogue is in English. This linguistic trick is crucial to Friel’s tragicomic tale of cross-cultural miscommunication: when the Irish characters are supposedly speaking Gaelic, the actors accent their English with a leisurely, lyrical brogue. The English characters, meanwhile, speak with a clipped, brisk crispness that suggests not only the sound of their language but the polite ruthlessness of their mission–for as Owen comes to understand, language is power, and the Gaelic-to-English translation is just another step in England’s attempt to obliterate the Irish soul. Owen is bilingual–actor Andrew J. Turner switches back and forth between English and “Gaelic” in subtly amusing shifts–and determined to foster friendship between his family and friends and the British who now employ him.

But the Anglo-Irish interaction turns disastrous just when it seems most promising–when George, a dreamy idealist infatuated with the beauty of the Irish landscape and the poetic nature of its people (the closest he ever got to poetry in England was a glimpse of Wordsworth walking near his home), becomes attracted to a local girl, Maire. Though the couple can’t understand each other’s words, there’s no mistaking the meaning in their voices as a tipsy recitation of Gaelic place-names turns into an erotic ritual that gives new meaning to the phrase “oral sex.” Still, their infatuation is based on mutual misunderstanding: Maire represents George’s fantasy of an Irish Eden, while she sees in him an escape from her dirt-poor peasant life. Maire also fails to tell George that she already has a beau–Manus, Owen’s younger brother. George disappears the day after his encounter with Maire, possibly killed by Manus or by an unseen but oft mentioned clan of resisters. His unexplained disappearance rouses the British military’s steely will in the play’s suspenseful climax.

First performed in Derry in 1980 by the Field Day Theatre Company (which Friel founded with actor Stephen Rea, the play’s dedicatee and original star), Translations steers clear of overt political analogies. And though the story’s troubling twist ends the play on an ominous note (foreshadowed in one character’s prophecies of a blight on the potato crop), it’s a remarkably exuberant work. Friel’s great gift is to communicate not only his characters’ romantic and familial conflicts and their peasant poverty but their innate joy in life. Never resorting to self-pitying nostalgia or to quaint comic stereotypes, Friel celebrates lost innocence like a reveler at a wake saluting a dead comrade–he’s alternately raucous and ruminative, intense and mellow, mournful and joyous.

Friel’s magic lies in his characters–multileveled, eccentric, passionate vehicles for actors with wide emotional ranges and directors with discriminating intelligence. David Cromer coaxes from his Seanachai cast the same idiosyncratic, vibrant spontaneity that marked his masterful revival of Angels in America for the Journeymen last summer, making the characters’ interactions at once lively and mysterious on set designer Thomas K. Kieffer’s winding dirt pathway. Complementing Andrew J. Turner’s conflicted, compromising Owen are Coby Goss’s romantic, foolish Yolland; John Dunleavy’s stentorian, wise, but alcohol-addled Hugh; Kevin Fox’s angry, uncertain Manus; and Janet A. Carr’s passionate Maire. Strong support is provided by Karen Tarjan as a mute whom Manus teaches to pronounce her name; Ann Noble Massey and Brian Baker as other students at the hedge school; Lawrence Garney as the British commander, aptly named Captain Lancey; and Gary Houston as Jimmy Jack Cassie, a dotty old man who seeks refuge from his surroundings by reading Homer and Virgil and dreaming of marrying the goddess Athena.

The long-gone world of Jimmy Jack’s imagination stands as an emblem of the soon-to-be-destroyed culture of the O’Donnells and their neighbors; like the epic heroes Odysseus and Aeneas, the residents of Baile Beag speak in what Hugh calls “a rich language…full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception–a syntax opulent with tomorrows.” For language is characterized not merely by words and place-names but by the soul it expresses; Translations shows that soul at the edge of an abyss, facing a transformation as impossible as it is inevitable.

If the people in Translations speak in “a syntax opulent with tomorrows,” the bitter Belfasters in Remembrance voice their frustrations in the language of rotting yesterdays: crabbed complaints, sick jokes, and endless obscenities. Victor Andrews is an officer with the Royal Ulster Constabulary who tries to shock people by pretending to be a bully and bigot–but it’s no longer clear where the pretense stops and reality begins. Deirdre Donaghy is a Catholic married to an imprisoned IRA terrorist; like her husband, she’s serving a life sentence, forbidden by her faith to divorce or to commit adultery–she half wishes the British government would institute the death penalty and make her a widow. Deirdre’s spinster sister Joan is as sexually frustrated as Deirdre–though where Deirdre yearns for the physical relationship she once had, Joan longs for an erotic life she’s never experienced.

Living in the midst of a seemingly interminable sectarian war, these three miserable people are brought together by an improbable romance between Victor’s father, Bert, and Joan and Deirdre’s mother, Theresa. Both widowed, the two meet while visiting the graves of children killed in the troubles. Bert’s son was murdered by an IRA hit squad, Theresa’s by a Protestant street gang–deaths that have left festering wounds in the psyches of Bert and Theresa’s surviving children. But Bert and Theresa themselves have gone beyond vengeance and guilt; their grieving resignation is the starting point for their new life together–if only their disapproving, vindictive offspring will let them build it.

Remembrance (which had its U.S. premiere at the Body Politic in 1987) unevenly contrasts Bert and Theresa’s contentment with the angry, unhappy circumstances of their separate family lives. What’s intended to be provocative–Victor’s coarse rudeness to his father, Joan and Deirdre’s intimidation of their suddenly rejuvenated mother–instead comes off as strident soap opera, as Reid’s exposition-heavy dialogue spells out the emotional dynamics that Friel would have subtly suggested. The results range from tedious to unintentionally comic (Victor’s oft voiced plans to emigrate to South Africa, “a great country for policemen”)–except for the two or three scenes that Bert and Theresa have to themselves. Here Reid stops trying to stir up dramatic conflict and settles for casual, tender conversation between two pensioners who fall in love while talking about everyday matters.

Muted and trivial, these dialogues nonetheless have a ring of truth that makes for credible, sometimes captivating theater in the experienced, honest hands of veterans Mike Nussbaum and Mary Ann Thebus. The supporting cast–Patrick New as Victor, Hanna Dworkin as his estranged wife Jenny, and Laura T. Fisher and Elaine Rivkin as Joan and Deirdre–limn their roles with energy and precision under Karen Kessler’s direction. Roderick Peeples’s evocative sound design ranges from melancholy Celtic folk music to the nerve-jangling noise of gunfire and TV-news sound bites, and John Stark’s set reproduces the script’s somewhat too symmetrical structure by placing the living rooms of Bert’s and Theresa’s homes side by side, divided by a bomb-blasted brick wall–symbol of a divided nation struggling to survive the cruel forces tearing at it from both outside and within.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maia Rosenfeld/Brad Miller.