If there’s one topic that you might be forgiven for thinking had been played out on the American stage, it’s Irish family life. Then along comes an act (or more properly, three acts) of genius that makes it all new again. Acclaimed in Great Britain, The Ferryman, the latest stunning tour de force by Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) has reached American shores and is winning over audiences just as easily here, too. And while it covers unapologetically oft-trodden territory, it does it with a freshness and generosity of perspective that feel positively Shakespearian and powerfully relevant.
Set in Northern Ireland in 1981, the drama features multiple generations of a sprawling Irish family living on a farm near the town of Derry. The rustic but majestic farmhouse that centers the story feels at once homey and iconic, but it’s just the backdrop for the 21(!) memorable characters of this full-to-bursting show – almost all of whom are family members. It’s a lot to contain even in some three hours, but Butterworth’s sweeping yet detailed script and director Sam Mendes’ cinematic command allow for the specificity that makes all the many characters in this masterwork rounded and remarkable.
At the family’s heart is Quinn Carney (a charismatic Paddy Considine), who presides over his enormous family with unfailing good humor and playfulness. His invalid wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) is less of a presence, but her seven spirited children bear witness to her existence, as do her unexpected descents into the main room. Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), who periodically drifts into focus and delights the children with her tales (fairy and otherwise), the cantankerous Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy), and the more phlegmatic and scholarly Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) represent the older generation. For good measure, the farm also houses a simpleminded English-born handyman, Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards); Caitlin (a heartbreaking Laura Donnelly), the wife of Quinn’s missing brother, Seamus; and her unhappy teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone). And since it’s harvest time, a crew of other young male relatives, the Corcoran boys, also makes an appearance.
It’s a lot to see written down, but though the cast is extensive, each character is memorable and distinctly drawn, sketched so particularly that there’s no confusion. Instead, we see the full panoply of this family drama unfold, including many different plots and storylines. But nearly all of them relates to the action with which the play opens – an eerie encounter in the nearby city of Derry, where Father Horrigan (an effective Charles Dale) is informed of the death of Seamus – Quinn’s brother and Caitlin’s husband – who has been missing for 10 years, by some local IRA members under the leadership of the terrifyingly courteous Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham). As the reluctant priest agrees to take the news back to the family, little do we know how much the family will come to mean to us or the multiple ways in which they will receive these tidings.
Hearing of Seamus’ death affects the family in strange ways. Of course there’s grief and anger, but having a definitive answer about him also frees Caitlin from the limbo in which she’s been trapped and makes her a living – and eligible – woman again. It also creates imbalances in the family’s relationships that ultimately explode into unexpected but inevitable violence.
To say more would be to reveal too much, but only a truly remarkable play can encompass and transcend genre as this one does. From wells that might long ago have run dry, The Ferryman meticulously but joyously builds, through detail after detail and fiercely loving observations, a minutely precise and sympathetic portrait of Irish rural life in the 80s – troubles and all – that is at once a testament to its place and time and a universally relatable story of the bonds that connect us and the powers that force us apart. Small wonder it works as well on the American stage as it did in the U.K. But, paradoxically, it’s hard to imagine any other production of the play, so masterfully does this one work.