Broadway hasn’t seen a play this harrowing yet eminently enjoyable since August: Osage County.
The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Sam Mendes. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W 45th Street, NY, NY.
By Christopher Caggiano
In the New York theater season, the most promising plays tend to open in the spring, at least on Broadway. This is perhaps because plays tend to have limited runs, and awards voters tend to have short memories. But this season seems a bit different; some of the most promising plays have already opened, or are scheduled to open before the end of the year.
When the spring awards season comes, The Ferryman, a new play by Jez Butterworth that recently bowed on Broadway, is likely to prove very difficult to top. Broadway hasn’t seen a play this harrowing yet eminently enjoyable since August: Osage County.
Call this one August: County Armagh, if you will.
The plays share many aspects: both are sprawling, with larger than usual casts for Broadway (The Ferryman boasts an ensemble of 23). They both came to Broadway without a single brand-name star. Both involve family secrets that come to light, and both, despite their grim subject matter, are enormously entertaining.
The Ferryman takes place during the early 1980s. The script draws on the longstanding tensions between the Irish Republican Army and the British government (called The Troubles) and the hunger strikes that led to the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other political prisoners. The play takes place in the central living space of the Carney family, who, on the surface, seems to be living a quiet life on a farm in Northern Ireland.
But underneath the bustle of a household with seven children and six adults, not to mention a few of the locals and three cousins who have come to help with the harvest, sits a dark history with the IRA that returns to capsize the family’s bucolic life ten years after one of their own has disappeared.
Despite its prodigious length — three hours and 15 minutes — The Ferryman never drags. It envelops. It embraces. It makes you feel as if you are part of the script’s extended family, rich as it is in idiosyncrasy and salty language, even from the youngest of the clan.
The play’s title refers to the mythical god Charon, who ushers newly deceased souls over the river Styx to the underworld. Yeah, title references don’t come any more ominous than that. And the play’s conflicts, and their socio-political context, might be downright off-putting were it not for the vibrancy with which Butterworth brings the Carneys and their interactions to life.
Butterworth’s previous Broadway outings have been a bit overshadowed by the performers. In 2014, Hugh Jackman was all anyone really seemed to notice in Butterworth’s play The River. Before that, Jerusalem in 2011, while sprawling and ambitious, ultimately served as a vehicle for Mark Rylance’s monumental, and Tony-winning, performance at the play’s center.
No such attention-getting solo turn this time around. Director Sam Mendes expertly choreographs his 23 players in The Ferryman, managing entrances and exits with the skill of George Balanchine. He also massages the ensemble into an inseparable whole, methodically building the play to its staggering climax. The last two minutes of The Ferryman are as gripping and action-packed as anything I’ve seen in New York in many a season. (Although the final scenes of American Son, now in previews on Broadway, would certainly run a close second.)
The ensemble cast, 80% of whom are making their Broadway debuts, is almost uniformly excellent. But it’s worth singling out Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney, wife of the missing Seamus, and mother to their troubled son, Oisin. Donnelly won the Olivier Award for Best Actress for this performance during the play’s London run, and it’s easy to see why. Over the play’s considerable length, she grows increasingly tightly wound, until she unravels, with ferocity.
Also compelling is Fionnula Flanagan as the mystical Aunt Maggie, lost for days at a time in a fog of dementia, but periodically lucid and wont to expound portentously. However, the central performance here is Paddy Considine as Quinn Carney. Considine does fine as the strong and beloved Carney patriarch for about 90% of the show, but he comes off as a bit forced during the scenes where the drama really comes to a boil.
Despite its considerable emotional power, The Ferryman may not be one for the ages. Butterworth’s blunt symbolism and Irish mysticism become a bit heavy-handed, as when one character brings a recently slaughtered goose into the kitchen and hangs the bird, dripping with blood, over the kitchen sink, where it hangs ominously at the end of the first act.
Also, for all the play’s undoubted historical resonance, Butterworth doesn’t really have anything new or particularly profound to say about the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Ferryman is essentially a collection of Irish tropes and archetypes that we’ve seen many times before. What’s remarkable is that the recycling doesn’t stop the production from being rousingly enjoyable.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.