Quinn Carney (center) and the cast of ‘The Ferryman.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
If you plan to see only one Broadway play this season, I recommend British writer Jez Butterworth’s enthralling The Ferryman, set in 1981 and dramatizing an Irish family’s involvement with the I.R.A. Although its basic plot is not complex, it’s packed with enough incident and characters to fill a half-dozen plays. Arriving on Broadway after an award-winning, hit London production, with much of its original cast intact, The Ferryman, mesmerizingly directed by Sam Mendes, is essential theatregoing.
Butterworth (Jerusalem) makes the play’s three hours and 15 minutes fly as black comedy mixes with darker tragedy, familial bonds clash with unrequited desires, and music, dance, confessional sanctity, and brutality intrude into a mashup of politics, poetry, profanity, and prophecy. Twenty-two actors (one of them only a few months old in a role alternated among four infants) share the stage with a live goose and rabbit, in a tale resonating with echoes of Steinbeck, Chekhov, and McDonagh et al.
The opening, set against a graffiti-covered wall in Derry, reveals the black-garbed Muldoon (Stuart Graham, exceptional), accompanied by a thuggish pair, interrogating a priest, Father Horrigan (Charles Dale). Muldoon is an I.R.A. leader, and the scene concerns the discovery of the body of Seamus Carney, who “disappeared” ten years earlier.
The involvement of the I.R.A. in that event, and the notorious hunger strike of I.R.A. prisoners led by Bobby Sands, lurks behind the action that follows, all of it set in a realistically grungy farmhouse (meticulously designed by Rob Howell and perfectly lit by Peter Mumford) in rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Here, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine, outstanding), Seamus’s brother, once an I.R.A. activist, rules over his remarkably vivid, brogue-accented household, presently preparing for the farm’s annual harvest and feast.
Quinn and his ailing, nightgown-wearing wife, Mary (an ethereal Genevieve O’Reilly), have seven kids, too many to mention but all terrific. They’ve also taken in his late brother’s attractive widow, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly, painfully honest), with whom Quinn shares suppressed desires, and her 14-year-old son, Oisin (Ron Malone), who’ve been here since Seamus vanished. Over the years, Caitlin’s hopes have been buoyed by reported sightings, although she’s never been fully convinced he’s alive; potent aftershocks follow her learning he’s definitely gone.
Then there’s the spry, professorial Uncle Patrick Carney (Mark Lambert, perfection), who reads The Aeneid (whose Charon, ferryman of souls, inspired the play’s title); Aunt Patricia Carney (Dearbhla Molloy, brilliant), passionately anti-English because of how they killed her brother; and the wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (the great Fionulla Flanagan), who now and then breaks from her dementia to predict the future or speak movingly of her past.
On and on the list grows, as we also meet the gentle giant and idiot savant (he recites Walter Raleigh’s “The Silent Lover”) Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards, unforgettable), an Englishman raised locally whose presence in this enclave does not bode well. Finally, there are the three Corcoran cousins who’ve come to help with the harvest. The eldest is Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney, star quality), a sexy, blond, bundle of danger seduced by what he’s seen of I.R.A. violence.
Butterworth keeps us simmering with discussions of family and political issues, giving almost every principal at least one major monologue. Things heat up upon the appearance of Muldoon and his goons. Threateningly reasonable and treated with fearful deference, he makes Quinn a proposal whose ethical challenge helps bring the play to a boil until the dramatic pot’s lid explodes and more than one goose gets cooked.
The Ferryman was inspired by the I.R.A.’s murder of an uncle of Butterworth’s partner, Laura Donnelly, who plays Caitlin. But the playwright takes pains to describe the atrocities committed by both sides, so only those with a dog in the fight are likely to feel he’s been unfair to theirs.
There are, of course, contrived and overdone elements, like that bloody finale or the artificial devices for hustling people on and off to handle the huge cast (it’s a wonder there’s not more eavesdropping). Regardless, the audience watches in such thrall that even people with colds hold back their coughs. On my soul, The Ferryman is theater at its best.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 42nd St., NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, Theater Life.