NEW YORK - We should all be learning to speak English, a young woman named Maire insists. "I don't want Greek. I don't want Latin. I want English."
For now, she and everyone around her speaks Gaelic - except for the occupiers of Ireland, these British who have come into her town to begin a survey of its place names. A British soldier catches Maire's eye and she snatches his heart, but they have no common language in which to express their feelings.
Irish playwright Brian Friel's Translations is about language, and its power to skew politics and cement cultures. The play, which premiered in the United States in 1981, opened Thursday in a solid revival with a sterling cast - a Manhattan Theatre Club coproduction with Princeton's McCarter Theatre, where it played three months ago.
Friel's peasants of Ballybeg may not know English, but they know English oppression. It's 1833, a dozen years before the potato famine will destroy Ireland's economy, plunge its people into despair, and spur successful rebellion against the British.
For now, the British are using language to enforce their power, Anglicizing the names of every town and crossroad.
The play's theatrical triumph is a technical one: Friel has people speaking Gaelic and speaking English, often miscommunicating with one another. In fact, everyone on stage speaks English. Yet Friel's characters are so clearly drawn, we know at any moment who is supposed to be speaking which language, for real.
Translations' dramatic arc is not quite as neat. The play is by turns riveting and slow, a shift of timing underscored by the formidable director, Garry Hynes. She stages a wonderful second-act love scene, a mesh of linguistic frustration and smoldering passion, with pulse-quickening intensity; you're riveted on the British map specialist (Chandler Williams) and the sweet Maire (Susan Lynch) as they grope to understand each other. Yet at other times, especially near the end, the play lags, confusing measured timing with poignancy.
Overall, though, this Translations gleams with fine moments Hynes and the cast bring vividly to life. In one, a young woman named Sarah (Morgan Hallett), all but mute because of some unexplained trauma, tries mightily to say her name; a scene later, a condescending British captain (Graeme Malcolm) - who also struggles to be understood - speaks English to a class of students who can't fathom a thing he says.
The play is set in a hedge school, a clandestine school set up to teach the basics of literacy in Gaelic. The commanding actor Niall Buggy plays the schoolmaster, and David Costabile and Alan Cox turn in thoughtful portrayals of his sons - one a slave to the old man, the other a slave to the British. Dermot Crowley gives a masterly take on the world's oldest student. Michael Fitzgerald and Geraldine Hughes shine in smaller roles.
Listening to these actors, the linguistic legacy of the era they evoke becomes obvious: Ireland lost its Gaelic, but took on a particularly beautiful English, a language its people enhance in speech and in usage to this day.
Written by Brian Friel, directed by Garry Hynes, scenery and costumes by Francis O'Connor, lighting by Davy Cunningham, sound by John Leonard. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and McCarter Theatre Center.
The cast: Niall Buggy (Hugh), David Costabile (Manus), Alan Cox (Owen), Dermot Crowley (Jimmy Jack), Susan Lynch (Maire), Chandler Williams (Lt. Yolland), Graeme Malcolm (Capt. Lancey), Morgan Hallett (Sarah), Michael Fitzgerald (Doalty), Geraldine Hughes (Bridget).
Playing at: The Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Tickets: $26.25-$86.25. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or www.manhattantheatreclub.com.