At the near conclusion of this brilliant production of The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, we learn that there are two kinds of lost souls in the Universe. This is according to Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) who has of late been making himself acquainted with Virgil. The two kinds of lost souls refused passage across the River Styx by the ferryman, Charon, are: The unburied. And liars. Those that lie to the innocent. In rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland, late August 1981 - when The Troubles were thrashing the country, there were plenty of folk who fit these two categories. Quite a few were living under the roof of Quinn and Mary Carney (Paddy Considine and Genevieve O'Reilly, respectively). The Carney farm has been in the family for generations, and the intention is to keep it so.
To begin with the unburied - that would be Seamus Carney, who has been 10 years missing and now found, his body preserved by the bog in which he was abandoned. His wife Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and her son Oisin (Rob Malone) have been given a home by Quinn, Seamus' brother. The shelter was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. We meet them and the rest of the family a decade later and see for ourselves that "temporary" had no say any longer. On the morning in question it is the local priest Father Horrigan (Charles Dale) who comes calling to deliver the news. He tells Quinn and Caitlin only. Caitlin makes the decision to keep the news from everyone until after the Harvest - why would one more day hurt?
Sharing this enormous farmhouse are the seven Carney Children: James Joseph "J.J" Carney, 16 (Niall Wright), Michael Carney, 15 (Fra Fee), Shena Carney, 14 (Carla Langely), Nunu "Nuala" Carney, 11 (Brooklyn Shuck), Mercy Carney, 9 (Willow McCarthy), Honor Carney, 7 (Matilda Lawler) and the most recent months-old Bobby (Sean Frank Coffey/Metta mary Sofsky). This is, you see, an Irish Catholic family, and the purpose of sexual relations is to bring forth children. Period.
On the other end of the age spectrum there are siblings: Aunt Patricia Carney, 80s, Quinn’s aunt (Dearblah Malloy), Uncle Patrick Carney, 70s, Quinn’s uncle (Mark Lambert), and Aunt Maggie Far Away, 80s, Quinn’s aunt (Fionnuala Flanagan). And bringing in the final ingredient is Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards) who was found wandering the land nearby at the age of 12 - roughly 30 years ago. In spite of the fact that he is a bit off, or perhaps because of it, he was welcomed in to the fold without question.
As this family prepares for the Harvest Feast - first the harvest with the three Corcoran boys joining in: Shane Corcoran, 17 (Tom Glynn-Carney), Diarmaid Corcoran, 16 (Conor MacNeill) and Declan Corcoran, 13 (Michael McArthur).
For all intents and purposes this is a normal raucous Harvest - note that there is more testosterone per square foot than a person cold find in an NBA locker room - until the local leader of the IRA Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham), shows up with his posse, Frank Maggenis (Dean Ashton) and Lawrence Malone (Glenn Speers). These three drag doom and danger with them like the Grim Reaper on a bender. For them, just "passing by" means they may have been sitting outside watching you for a few days or more. In this case they are there for condolences (read warning). The news shatters everyone who does not know, and this of course pleases Muldoon who you would not trust to carry a butter knife across a street.
The news of Seamus' death after ten years of not knowing is the explosion that causes the unseen frayed threads to pull apart and fracture this family - as they must. Because that is the way of it in this house and in this country when the Troubles infuse the air with terror. Every person in this collection is touched by The Troubles, whether they will it or no. From the youngest child to Aunt Maggie Far Away - they are touched. It is either the past that stretches back to the 1916 massacre or the present where a young lad can be looped into a simple act of taking note of the comings and goings in the street. The innocent commit murder and the revered betray their own. Every movement is calculated and taken with the intention that family must be protected and never left to wander alone. The path is not safe. All that are living - they are the liars. And they know it.
This is not so much a play as it is a communal aria. The writing is choral. The characters move in and out like wild folk dancers slipping in and out of the light. Each of the performances is crafted to perfection, and Sam Mendes' direction insures that everyone has their spotlight and their glowing place by the hearth in rotation. It is Maggie Far Away, however, who holds this circus together and is its center. Although she appears to do little, set in her chair down stage right and in her own world of memories and dementia, it soon feels as though she is holding down that corner of the stage to stop the farmhouse from lifting off and winging into orbit. So strong are the forces competing against one another in this microcosm of the chaos that was Northern Ireland, that were Maggie to remove herself from the doings, all manner of catastrophe might happen to her family. Her presence is that strong but her strength, though clear to us, sails over the heads of her house mates. Fionnula Flannagan makes this magic look easy.
Jez Butterworth knits characters into characters, then into stories, then into layers of overlapping colors, then into worlds that are larger than the stage that holds them. What you don't realize, sitting there for 3 hours and 15 minutes that fly by, is that this knitting has trickled into every element of The Ferryman. The story has woven you into its web without your knowing it.
The result is that, when this play is over, you wish it were not. The Mighty Carney Family has become your own. How can you ever say goodbye?
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"No matter what sort of spread you’ve planned for your Thanksgiving dinner, it won’t be a patch on the glorious feast that has been laid out at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. That’s where Jez Butterworth's thrilling new play The Ferryman opened on Sunday night, with a generosity of substance and spirit rarely seen on the stage anymore."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The Ferryman is a seismic experience at the theater: As it spins forward, its plates keep shifting under it. You sense the rumbles and you feel the shaking—the shaking might be you—as you wait for this magnificent and harrowing play to crack open."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"In the great Irish tradition of vivid story-telling comes "The Ferryman." Jez Butterworth's richly stocked play, set in Northern Ireland during the bitter IRA troubles, is a gorgeous sprawling yarn that encompasses the entire spectrum of human existence: Life and death, love and hatred, compassion and violence."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Just as Jez Butterworth's rollicking 2009 State-of-England tragicomedy Jerusalem had sprawling roots in the ancient soil and mythology of that land, the dramatist's gloriously entertaining new work digs deep into the blood-soaked earth of Northern Ireland. A crackling thriller woven into the vibrant canvas of a character-driven portrait of big-family rural communion, it positively thrums with life and love."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Glorious is not too strong a word for director Sam Mendes's production of Jez Butterworth’s heartbreaker of a play, The Ferryman. Flawless ensemble work by a large and splendid cast adds depth to the characters in this sprawling drama that is at once a domestic calamity and a political tragedy."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...