The Ferryman (as in over the river Styx) – Enthralling

Here’s the Tony Award. Jez Butterworth, who gave us the dense, dynamic Jerusalem, is back with a sprawling piece about family, the long arm of history, and “The Troubles.”* Rarely are we treated to such a feast of richly imagined characters, compelling writing, and a production worthy of both. Three hours fly by.

Northern Ireland 1981. Republican inmates in the Maze Prison have been on a hunger strike five months in order to be reclassified political prisoners. Despite nine having died, Prime Minister Thatcher refuses to comply.

An IRA member’s body has been found rotting in a bog. The dead man’s parish priest, Father Horrigan (Gerard Horn), is questioned not by authorities, but rather IRA head, Muldoon (effectively creepy Stuart Graham), who makes him understandably fearful. Goons Frank (Dean Ashton) and Lawrence (Glenn Speers) hover.

Laura Donnelly

Abruptly cutting tension evoked by the play’s sinister preface, we find ourselves in Quinn Carney’s rural, County Armagh home. Quinn (Paddy Considine) and Caitlin (Laura Donnelly, for whom Butterworth wrote the piece) have been playing kids’ games, drinking and dancing all night. The scene is playful, sexy, warm.

Offspring come down for breakfast: Shena (Carla Langley) carrying baby Bobby (not a doll), Honor (Matilda Lawler), Mercy (Willow McCarthy), Nuala (Brooklyn Shuck), James Joseph (Niall Wright), and later Michael Carney (Fra Fee), fill the room, happily talking over one another. Quinn’s children range from nine months to 16 years-old. The young actors are terrific. Matilda Lawler’s blithely bloodthirsty Honor deserves special call-out.

Niall Wright, Matilda Lawler, Justin Edwards (Tom), Mark Lambert, Fra Fee, Willow McCarthy

Also among the young is Caitlin’s emotional son Oisin Carney (Rob Malone).  She, it seems, is neither Quinn’s spouse nor his lover. The wife (or widow) of his brother, she’s been living with the family since husband Seamus disappeared ten years ago. Quinn’s wan wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly, watchfully graceful), has long taken to her bed with unspecific infirmities and rarely participates.

This is one of those overflowing households whose loving chaos accommodates and nurtures every member. Wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (the always splendid Fionna Flanagan), fades in and out of dementia, sharing both raunchy and faerie stories. (The children’s reasoned acceptance of her is inspired.) Drunk, poetic, cliché Uncle Patrick Carney quotes Virgil (Mark Lambert in a role made for him.) Aunt Patricia Carney (Dearbhla Molly, offering a master class for character actors) is a staunch IRA supporter ranging from curmudgeonly to mean.

Fionnula Flanagan, Matilda Lawler, Brooklyn Shuck

Tom Kettle (a deeply memorable Justin Edwards) lives on the property and eats with the family. Adopted when found wandering the countryside at 12, he’s big, sweet, and slow – they call him “unhurried”- like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, a great worker and, unfortunately for local prejudice, British. Tom collects rainbows (notches on his door).

The Corcoran nephews Diarmaid (Conor Macneill), Declan (Michael Quinn McArthur, bravo) and Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney), arrive to help with harvest. Shane is a loose cannon, a punk troublemaker whose influence on Oisin bodes ill. Glynn-Carney’s powerful characterization is right out of Clockwork Orange. From a manic, sexual dance to cunning suggestion, we believe the unrepentant danger he represents.

Willow McCarthy, Brooklyn Shuck, Dearbhla Molloy

Father Hannigan tells Quinn who tells Caitlin that the corpse in the bog is her late husband. The new widow, who always suspected, decides not to share the news with her family until after Harvest. Then Muldoon and his thugs show up.

In the course of the play, a lamp catches fire, a live baby rabbit is pulled from one of Tom’s endless pockets, and a live goose is brought in before its neck is wrung for the harvest feast. Both Maggie and Shena sing. The little ones are treated to a bit of omnipresent whiskey. Aunt Pat rails against Thatcher. There’s joyful, uninhibited dancing. Fortunes are told. People are threatened, betrayed, proposed to, propositioned, and murdered. Everything anyone could want in an evening’s theater.

Stuart Graham and Paddy Considine

The Ferryman is immensely expansive, yet nothing feels extraneous. Clues left early on reveal secrets later. Playwright Jez Butterworth creates witty, garrulous, dour, and blindly vengeful Irish with equal skill. Generational perceptions are clearly drawn. History grasps.

Director Sam Mendes oversees riveting character specificity and focus. Young actors (and animals) are remarkably natural. The long play is beautifully paced. A large set  is fully utilized with logical stage business and comings/goings, none of which feel manufactured. Two very different, heartbreaking scenes featuring Caitlin, and one, with Oisin and Shane, echo still.

Laura Donnelly (Caitlin) and Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney) weigh in and play off one another beautifully with solid, relatable performance. Both actors visibly think and listen. Chemistry is palpable. Considine inhabits fury and tenderness, Donnelly patience, warmth and prayer.

Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly, Paddy Considine

Designer Rob Howell offers creative images with his slanted roof, extra high stairway, kid-decorated window and walls – a meticulous Set whose truth is so evident, it looks long occupied. Costumes, especially wear and tear, seem organic to characters. Hair, Wigs, and Make-Up by Campbell Young Associates is so right, it’s invisible.

Choreographer Scarlett Mackmin presents joyful exuberance and drunken gyration with equal finesse. Fight Directors Terry King and Thomas Schall are masterful in the reality of depictions.

Kudos to Animal Trainer William Berloni who successfully wranged a baby rabbit and full grown goose.

Dialect Coaches Majella Hurley and Deborah Hecht do an excellent job.

If there were a Tony for Casting, it would belong to Amy Ball CDG in the UK and Jim Carnahan CSA/Jillian Cimini CSA in the U.S. for a huge company of adult and child actors without a weak link, each of whom look exactly as we might imagine.

The Company

*Loyalists-mostly Protestants wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Nationalists/Republicans, mostly Catholics, were determined that it leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland. “The Troubles” gave rise to paramilitary groups including the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army and the IRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army) locking horns with The British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Paddy Considine

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Sam Mendes
Bernard R. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street

About Alix Cohen (1466 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.