Stanford Summer Theater’s 10th season features works by Ireland’s Brian Friel
Geoff Hoyle plays Hugh and Maggie Mason plays Maire in the upcoming Stanford Summer Theater production of Brian Friel’s Translations, which opens Thursday.
In a small town in rural Ireland, Maire falls in love with George, a shy British soldier enchanted with all things Irish, not just Maire, but also the local pub's fiery poteen, the land, the people and the language—even the place names he has been ordered to wipe off its maps.
The young couple meet in private after a dance. Neither speaks the other's language, and George softly recites the Irish names he has learned, as if he were searching for a sound she might respond to: "Maire. Maire Chatach. Bun na hAbhann? Druim Dubh? Poll na gCaorach. Lis Maol. Lis na nGall."
Set in 1833, Brian Friel's Translations explores the tensions that arise when British soldiers arrive to map the countryside and anglicize its Gaelic place names, either by changing them into their approximate English sounds or by translating them into English words.
The play opens July 10 in Pigott Theater and is one of three highly acclaimed Friel dramas that will be presented during the 2008 Stanford Summer Theater festival season, "Brian Friel (and other Irish voices)."
The festival runs July 7 through Aug. 18. It marks the 10th season of Stanford Summer Theater and also will feature a stage production of Faith Healer, which many consider to be Friel's masterpiece, and a movie version of Friel's play Dancing at Lughnasa, which won the Tony Award for best play in 1992. There also will be a free Monday night film series (see sidebar) of movies from or about Ireland, including The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006).
For those who would like to learn more about Friel, whose writing career spans five decades, the festival is presenting a daylong symposium July 19, "Brian Friel in Context," with keynote speaker Ingrid Craigie, an award-winning Irish actress and a friend of the playwright.
Born in Northern Ireland, Friel now lives in a small village in County Donegal, the northernmost county in Ireland. He will turn 80 in January.
When Friel learned that Stanford was producing Faith Healer, he faxed a typewritten note to Rush Rehm, the festival's artistic director, wishing him and the cast well. Rehm, who is directing Faith Healer, said he has long admired Friel's plays and was thrilled to receive the note, which will be included in the program.
He said he chose to focus on the Irish playwright's work this season because he wanted to present plays of the highest caliber that were also accessible to a wide audience. "The most important reason, of course, is the quality of Friel's writing, which is exceptional," said Rehm, a professor of drama and of classics at Stanford.
Most of Translations takes place in a hedge school—created in defiance of British laws meant to extinguish Irish language and culture—on the ground floor of a barn. It is also the home of the eccentric schoolmaster, Hugh, who speaks Latin, Greek, Irish and, when the occasion demands, English. Meanwhile, his son Owen works for the British as a translator.
George, the British soldier charged with the renaming effort, worries that the mapping project is "an eviction of sorts," but Owen blithely dismisses his concerns as "romance" and enthusiastically changes one name after another on the new map. George speaks longingly of settling down in Ireland, but Maire, who wants to learn English, talks about fleeing to America.
Many languages are spoken in Translations, which premiered in Northern Ireland in 1980, the first production of a theater company formed by Friel and actor Stephen Rea. When the play appeared on Broadway in 2007, New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote: "A basic fluency in the workings of the human heart is all that's necessary to absorb the beauties of Mr. Friel's tender, sad and funny play about the difficulty of finding a home in the world, a person to share it with, and a name to call it by."
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the festival's associate artistic director, will direct the campus production of Translations. The cast includes Will Brill (Restoration Comedy, Stanford Summer Theater) as Owen; Geoff Hoyle (Waiting for Godot, Stanford Summer Theater; The Lion King, Broadway; Feast of Fools, off-Broadway) as Hugh; Will Lindemann (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Stanford Shakespeare Company) as Lt. George Yolland; and Maggie Mason (The Collection, Stanford Summer Theater; Future Me, TheaterFirst in Oakland) as Maire.
Translations will run Thursdays through Sundays, July 10 through July 27, at Pigott Theater in Memorial Hall.
In this 1978 drama, Friel interweaves the stories of Frank Hardy, an itinerant and erratic miracle worker; Grace, his long-suffering wife; and Teddy, his devoted manager, as they recount their lives traveling together to small towns throughout the British Isles.
The characters tell their stories in monologues and never appear together on stage.
"The play is a mystery story in both the mundane and spiritual sense," New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote in 2006 during a Broadway revival starring Ralph Fiennes. "Though each of the narrators tells essentially the same tale in all four soliloquies (Frank speaks first and last), their accounts disagree in ways that make us dizzy."
It is a powerful and deeply moving account of love, loyalty and loss.
"As is often the case in Mr. Friel's plays, memory is capricious, just as Frank's great and improbable gift is," Brantley wrote.
"You'll have no trouble getting to the gist of the experiences shared by Frank, Grace and Teddy: of their travels to rural outposts in an increasingly temperamental old van; of the combustible relationship between Frank and Grace; of the night in a Welsh village when a drunken Frank healed all 10 invalids who came to him; of the final, disastrous return to Frank's native Ireland. But beyond that you don't know what version of reality to accept."
Rehm said Faith Healer makes extraordinary demands on actors.
"It is personally thrilling for me to have the opportunity to work on Friel's Faith Healer with Andy Robinson, Courtney Walsh Phleger and Jeffrey Bihr," he said. "No kidding, it's one of the highlights of my directing life."
Andrew Robinson, whose career includes starring roles on Broadway (Narrow Road to the Deep North), television (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and film (Dirty Harry), will play Frank; Courtney Walsh Phleger (Les Blancs, Stanford Summer Theater) will play Grace; and Jeffrey Bihr (Restoration Comedy, Stanford Summer Theater) will play Teddy.
Faith Healer will run Thursdays through Sundays, July 31 through Aug. 17, at Pigott Theater in Memorial Hall.
'Brian Friel in Context'
The daylong symposium will present a mix of performances, lectures and panel discussions featuring Stanford scholars (Rehm; Charles Junkerman, associate provost and dean of Stanford's Continuing Studies Program and Summer Session; playwright Amy Freed), actors starring in festival productions of Translations and Faith Healer, and distinguished guests.
Among the topics that will be discussed: Friel's artistic response to the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland; Friel and Anton Chekhov (Friel wrote several adaptations of Chekhov plays, including Uncle Vanya); Friel's influence on other Irish playwrights and poets; and the sensibility that unites Friel with his friend, the poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
The program includes an Irish luncheon (with Guinness and soda bread) and an afternoon tea break (with Irish tea, scones and clotted cream) outside Memorial Hall.
10th season of Stanford Summer Theater festival
In its inaugural season, the festival staged Uncle Vanya, a tragicomedy by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. This summer, the festival has trained its theatrical sights on an Irish playwright known for his adaptations of Chekhov's plays, including Uncle Vanya.
"We started long ago with Chekhov," said Rehm. "It just made sense to come around to the Irish Chekhov."
In the decade in between, the festival featured the work of Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Max Frisch, Aristophanes and Harold Pinter. Two years ago, the festival produced plays about the Restoration period, including Amy Freed's Restoration Comedy and Molière's Don Juan.
Last summer, the festival explored Africa, with plays from the continent and American plays about Africa, including Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin's Oda Oak Oracle and Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs.
"For 10 years we have produced high-quality professional theater aimed at the kind of audiences that don't mind thinking and being challenged," Rehm said. "We have also provided a festival context in which those theatrical productions can be understood, with a film series featuring movies either directly related to the playwright or thematically connected to the plays and a community symposium focusing on the theme of the festival."
Rehm, who co-founded Stanford Summer Theater with Junkerman, said the festival gives students the chance to work alongside theater professionals for 10 weeks, free of the distractions of the normal academic year.
"As far as I know, there is no comparable program at a major American university," he said.
Tickets for Translations and Faith Healer are available online at http://summertheater.stanford.edu.
General admission tickets are $20. Discounted tickets are available for faculty, staff, seniors and students. Non-reserved seats for Sunday matinee performances are available on a pay-what-you-like basis.
For more information about the festival, visit the Stanford Summer Theater website.
Tickets for "Brian Friel in Context" are $80, including morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea. The symposium will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on July 19 in Pigott Theater in Memorial Hall. To register, visit the Continuing Studies Program website at http://csp.stanford.edu.
Stanford Summer Theater is sponsored by the Continuing Studies Program, the Drama Department and the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts.