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The Ferryman Review: A Breathtaking Feast of Stories and Character

By the time “The Ferryman” has ended, we have been treated to a breathtaking mix of revenge action thriller, romance, melodrama, family saga, and a feast of storytelling – ghost stories, fairy stories, stories of Irish history and politics, stories of longing and of loss.

Jez Butterworth’s play about farmer Quinn Carney and his sprawling, colorful family is rich, sweeping entertainment — epic, tragic….and cinematic.

No, director Sam Mendes, best known as a film director (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Spectre), doesn’t use projection design or other movie-like technical touches. Unlike his James Bond films, nobody travels to exotic locations around the globe. Indeed, after an ominous prologue, the play takes place entirely in Ron Howell’s lived-in feeling set of a living room of the Carney’s old stone house in County Armagh, Northern Ireland.

But “The Ferryman” comes closer to a movie than to most plays these days in several ways:  Its scale — there are some two dozen actors, all terrific, most making their Broadway debuts; its embrace of naturalism — there’s a live baby, a bunny, and a goose! — and simultaneously of myth; its willingness to mine archetypes, and its bold use of familiar storylines from crowd-pleasing genres.

The playwright and the director pull this off through skilled construction – a masterful sense of suspense, and of when to focus and when to pull back to show the panorama.  A significant joy of “The Ferryman” is sharing in the characters’ excitement, dancing, singing, joking and general hubbub during the Harvest and the Harvest Feast that follows.

“The Ferryman” was inspired by a true story.  Several months before Laura Donnelly was born in Belfast, her 26-year-old uncle, who was involved with the Irish Republican Army, vanished. Three years later, his body was found in a bog.

Donnelly told this story to the playwright,  her partner at the time. She is the actress who now (winningly) portrays Caitlin Carney in “The Ferryman,” a woman whose husband Seamus Carney disappeared ten years ago. At the outset of the play, his body has been found in a bog, with a gunshot in the back of his head. Seamus was the brother of Quinn Carney (an anchoring Paddy Considine.)  It is August, 1981, a time when imprisoned members of the IRA have gone on hunger strike, and are starving to death one by one.  A leader in the IRA, Mr. Muldoon (a deep-voice, smooth-talking villain portrayed by Stuart Graham) visits the Carneys with two henchmen and a warning: With the hunger strikes focusing world attention on The Troubles, this is not the right time to be making accusations against the IRA; they need to accept “that what happened to Seamus was a tragedy which had absolutely nothing to do with us.”

Quinn, we learn, has a past with Muldoon; he was a soldier in the IRA, but gave it up ten years ago – right before his brother’s disappearance.

Caitlin and her son Oisin (a persuasively haunting and haunted Rob Malone) has lived with Quinn’s family ever since, and she’s more or less taken responsibility for Quinn’s seven children (now aged 16 to nine months), while their mother Mary (an ethereal Genevieve O’Reilly) retreats to her bed with a series of imagined “viruses.” It’s clear from the very first scene, when they’re dancing to the Rolling Stones, that Caitlin and Quinn seem to have a special….rapport.

These plotlines give “The Ferryman” forward thrust.  But the many characters and their stories give it beauty. This is a play full of storytellers, who understand the importance of a good yarn well-told. We’re cued in early to this when Quinn’s Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) ridicules her brother Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) after he recalls his first Harvest Feast. “You know what irks me most about this ‘story’? It isn’t one,” Aunt Pat says, in a monologue that is both amusing and that introduces us to her bitterness – which we eventually learn was caused by the death of her older brother during the Easter Rising of 1916.

Nearly every character sooner or later gets their moment in the sun, many of them telling stories, We first meet Aunt Maggie Faraway (the great Fionnula Flanagan) in her wheelchair, silent and seemingly senile. But she suddenly comes to life, and Quinn’s girls (Brooklyn Shuck, Matilda Lawler, Willow McCarthy, and Carla Langley, wonderful young actresses all) gather around her to ask her questions – where has she been, why has she never married, what will their futures hold, why is “Aunt Pat such a bitch?”…each of which yields a story more spellbinding and fantastical than the last – before she again falls silent.

The actors portraying Quinn’s aunts and uncle are old pros, and priceless. There are many other memorable performances. Tom Glynn-Carney portrays Shane Corcoran, Quinn’s nephew, one of three brothers who have come from Derry to help with the harvest. He starts off as a fun-loving lad who changes up the music from Irish fiddling to the hard rock “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones and dances like a maniac. He reveals himself as a strident Irish patriot who’s been flirting with the IRA, then becomes an anxious kid who picks a fight with first his cousin Michael Carney (the wonderful Fra Fee) and then with his brother Diarmaid (the equally wonderful Conor MacNeil), before he winds up a drunken and dangerous lout. Justin Edwards is Tom Kettle, a feeble-minded but strong, well-meaning and capable handyman who recalls the character Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Because he is an Englishman in Northern Ireland, though he’s lived there since childhood, the militant members of the family, including Aunt Pat and Shane, express outright hatred for him. This hatred prompts a series of events that feed into the multiply shocking climax of “The Ferryman.”  Some theatergoers might wonder at how plausible the ending is. But they’re likely to reflect on this only after they’ve had a chance to catch their breath back home.  And with that reflection may come as well the realization that the underlying themes (such as the wages of hatred) add heft to what seemed merely to be the most thrilling play of the Broadway season.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged

The Ferryman
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
Written by Jez Butterworth; Original music by Nick Powell; Directed by Sam Mendes.
Scenic and costume design by Rob Howell; lighting Design by Peter Mumford; sound design by Nick Powell; Hair and wig design by Campbell Young Associates
Cast: Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly, Dean Ashton, Glynis Bell, Gina Costigan, Charles Dale, Justin Edwards, Fra Fee, Fionnula Flanagan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Stuart Graham, Mark Lambert, Carla Langley, Conor MacNeill, Colin McPhillamy, Rob Malone, Dearbhla Molloy, Glenn Speers, Niall Wright, Audrey Bennett, Peter Bradbury, Trevor Harrison Braun, Will Coombs, Carly Gold, Holly Gould, Matilda Lawler, Michael McArthur, Bella May Mordus, Griffin Osbourne and Brooklyn Shuck
Running time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, including two intermission (one 15 minutes, one three minutes.)
Tickets: $59.00 – $175.00
Recommended for 10 years old and over.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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