New York City Theater
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
Ask what “The Ferryman” is about and the answer is: nothing less than life and death. In Jez Butterworth’s dazzling, complex, poetic, funny and frightening comedy-drama, a family struggles to be free of political strife, preferring drinking, dancing, singing, loving, lusting and enjoying a harvest feast. Add the felt presence of banshees, those roaming spirits that anticipate a death to come, and you have an Irish version of a universal story as relentless as a Greek tragedy.
There are deaths aplenty in “The Ferryman,” directed with unerring skill and brilliance by Sam Mendes. Its very title presages demise, referring to Charon, the boatman who ferries dead souls across the River Styx into the eternity of Hades. Those he makes wait on shore are the unburied and liars.
Set in rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland, it’s a land where “the sun rises and softens all the sharp edges of the world.” The time is 1981, during the Hunger Strike that so many IRA prisoners embraced, British P.M. Margaret Thatcher refused to acknowledge and many ordinary folk tried to ignore.
Yet, escape is impossible for the Carney/Corcoran families divided between those who support the IRA and those who just want to be left alone. Still, the real world, the world of fear, revenge and “The Troubles,” intervenes.
Quinn Carey (“a good man, a family man”) is the head of a household consisting of his psychosomatic wife, their seven children, his brother’s attractive widow, Caitlin, and assorted relatives. Confronted by the IRA’s Muldoon to dis-remember his brother’s horrific, unburied fate, Quinn has to choose between truth and lies.
His conflicts are further complicated by his and Caitlin’s secret love for one another. Other secrets are spilled, while older aunts and Uncle Pat pass on family memories, as well as mythological and ghost stories that both delight the young ‘uns and keep a riven society at bay.
Indeed, Quinn Carney wishes to keep his family as non-political as Aunt Pat is militant. Yet real names intrude like the martyred Bobby Sands, after whom Quinn’s infant son may be named. Juxtaposing the sheer joy of camaraderie with scenes of personal and political conflict, Butterworth and Mendes employ a large canvas on which to paint the utter complexity of living in such divided times.
In a cast of 22 (24 counting a live goose and a live rabbit), there’s not a weak spot. (Many are imported from the hit London production.). Director Mendes’ direction is so precise that we truly get to know each and every character.
Paddy Considine’s Quinn holds himself in check, straining to forget the terrors that haunt past and present. Teasing his children, defying threats, his desire to make the family unit work is palpable but the effort has its costs. The wonderful Laura Donnelly barely suppresses the boiling rage and sadness inside by tending to duties that should be those of Quinn’s ailing wife. The most serious threat to the family’s peace is from Muldoon, played with understated menace by Stuart Graham.
Three great veteran actors, Dearbhla Molloy as sardonic Aunt Pat, Fionnula Flanagan as dementia-ridden Aunt Maggie Far Away (as she’s called) and Mark Lambert as boozy philosopher Uncle Pat are memorable. Two other standouts are Matilda Lawlor as the seven-year-old Honor Carney, tossing off bon mots with glee, while Tom Glynn-Carney gives a fiery performance as the angry, foul-mouthed, opportunistic, inciting Shane Corcoran.
Tensions belie the homeyness of Rob Howell’s cozy, detailed set. Yet, what Uncle Pat says of the harvest applies to “The Ferryman.” That it is “filled with breath and life and spirit. And hope. Lord knows we need some of that right now.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 30, 2018