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The Ferryman

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors


Paddy Considine as Quinn Carney with family in The Ferryman. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

The Ferryman is Jez Butterworth's exemplary peek into the makeup of a rural Northern Irish family during the long-running political "troubles." On the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, a suspicious meeting in a dark Derry alley evolves into a personal generational play, lavish with emotion, laughs, tears, and especially secrets. The secret in the alley weaves as an undercurrent through the extended family further north.

In the prologue, nervous Father Horrigan (Charles Dale) is summoned to meet an IRA militant, the glowering Muldoon (Stuart Graham), to identify a photo of the long-missing Seamus Carney. Seamus's body had been found in a peat bog, still in remarkably preserved condition after ten years and the priest can easily tell who he is. Father Horrigan is ordered  to tell Seamus' family about the death, however, he is warned that the details of Seamus' death must be kept quiet.

Under the direction of Sam Mendes, the play begins unraveling early the next morning, a rambling Irish tale of hard-working, hard-living farmers with lots of links to classical theater and literature. It is late August 1981, on the County Armagh farm of the Seamus' older brother Quinn Carney, a former IRA member himself, portrayed with focused dedication by Paddy Considine. It is early in the morning, the family is asleep upstairs and Quinn is playing Connect Four, drinking Bushnills and dancing in the kitchen with Seamus' widow, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly). Obviously, the two have a close relationship, not played out but later acknowledged.

Quinn's wife,  Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), has been "ailing" since the birth of her seventh child, Baby Bobby, a stage cutie of nine months who is mostly cared for by the older daughters. Mary and Quinn have six other children and Caitlin has a son, a perceptive boy, Oisin (Rob Malone). 

It is time for harvest, a busy day with chores for everybody, topped by an loud evening harvest celebration, of eating, drinking, dancing and songs. Three nephews are visiting to help with the harvest. Family members wander in to start the day, the children banging about, shouting and the farmhouse comes alive through the people who gather there. The "wee ones," are scrappy and energetic, older brothers tumble and fight but take on more and more farm work. Donnelly is indefatigable as the intense Caitlin, taking care of everybody, never having learned what happened to her husband.

The evocative setting by Robb Howell is a large wooden and flagstone room, messy and busy, a central meeting place packed with an old Irish flag, children's drawings, religious items, a central fireplace, photos of rock stars and a large table and chairs. Howell, also the costume designer, dresses the characters believably in casual work clothes.

Two elderly single aunts take their places, Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy),  sharp-tongued, fiercely linked to the IRA past, and devoted to her radio. When she turns up the volume, we hear Margaret Thatcher's words, "Crime is crime is crime." Opposite is senile Aunt Maggie Far-Away (Fionnula Flannery), who occasionally clears her mind enough to amuse the children with stories and songs of the old days and her old love.

There is garrulous elfin Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert), brimming with stories and gossip. The title of the play comes from his stories of the Aeneid boatman, Charon, who ferries dead souls to the underworld. Almost a member of the family is a neighbor, a large man, dim-witted  Tom Kettle, who comes by with apples for the children, a small rabbit, various treats in his pockets. A spine-tingling performance by Justin Edwards.

In the commodious cast , each character is expressive, with intriguing connections. Slowly secrets  emerge, and in its length of  three plus hours, the audience is enticed by the lusty, hard-drinking family not realizing they are to get a visit from Father Horrigan. This visit will change Caitlin's life and the lives of the whole family.

Choreography by Scarlett Mackmin, lighting by Peter Mumford and sound design by Nick Powell play large parts in heightening the submerged passions and sudden drama of Jez Butterworth's memorable work.

Crime, loss, and violence are unveiled secrets with this family burdened with memories of the bloody Irish rebellion, guilt, demands for justice, and an explosive redemption ties up  with ubiquitous humanity. The Ferryman ran for three years in London, winning major reviews. It can do no less here.

The Ferryman
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 - West 45 Street, New York, NY
Previews: Oct. 2, 2018. Opening: Oct. 21, 2018. Limited Run
Cast: Paddy Considine in his stage debut as Quinn Carney, Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney, Genevieve O’Reilly as Mary Carney, Dean Ashton, Glynis Bell, Peter Bradbury, Trevor Harrison Braun, Sean Frank Coffey, Will Coombs, Gina Costigan, Charles Dale, Theo Ward Dunsmore, Justin Edwards, Fra Fee, Fionnula Flanagan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Carly Gold, Cooper Gomes, Holly Gould, Stuart Graham, Mark Lambert, Carla Langley, Matilda Lawler, Conor MacNeill, Michael McArthur, Willow McCarthy, Colin McPhillamy, Rob Malone, Dearbhla Molloy, Bella May Mordus, Griffin Osborne, Brooklyn Shuck, Glenn Speers, Rafael West Vallés, and Niall Wright.
Playwright: Jez Butterworth
Directed: Sam Mendes

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
October 2018 

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