On its second viewing – this time with a mostly American cast – the jigsaw-puzzle intricacies of Jez Butterworth’s epic drama The Ferryman, now at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, become even more apparent. So does the playwright’s remarkable ability to simultaneously create an ultra-gripping family drama, full of shocks and surprises, while serving up a political lesson on the effects of the Northern Irish hunger strikes in 1981 – and the years-long simmering tension between the Northern Irish and the English. The result, under Sam Mendes’ flawless direction, is akin to a magnificent tapestry, one in which new details emerge each time you look at it.
Save for an initial scene, the nearly three-and-a-half-hour work takes place within the confines of Rob Howell’s authentic Irish farmhouse set, the longtime home of the Carney family, where multiple generations now reside under the same roof. Providing food and shelter for such a large clan is just one of the many burdens shouldered by Quinn Carney, a former IRA activist turned farmer, who does his best to provide the glue to keep home and hearth intact. But Quinn also appears ready to completely combust at any moment in Brian D’Arcy James titanic performance, and one never knows when he will explode physically or verbally.
His need to let out some steam is immediately apparent in the play’s initial moments, as we see him dancing with abandon with Caitlyn (a lovely Holley Fain), whom we’re meant to suspect is Quinn’s wife. In reality, though, she’s actually his sister-in-law, who has lived in Quinn’s home with her sullen and often-angry teenaged son Oisin (an excellent Ethan Dubin) for a decade since her husband Seamus, Quinn’s brother, mysteriously disappeared. Butterworth doesn’t prolong the suspense; the audience finds out immediately what has happened to Seamus, and as each member of the Carney clan eventually learns the truth, the dynamics of the story keep shifting.
While Caitlyn basically runs the household, even playing surrogate mother to Quinn’s seven children, he still has a wife, Mary (Emily Bergl, projecting the perfect combination of strength and fragility). She has essentially retreated to her bedroom, suffering for years from a so-called virus. In reality, Mary has simply tired of the “competition” posed by her younger sister-in-law.
Still, even if Caitlyn weren’t around, the Carney clan could be a lot to handle, from the foul-mouthed, English-hating Aunt Patricia (a sharp-tongued Ann McDonugh), her kindly, chatty and strangely philosophical brother Patrick (a pitch-perfect Fred Applegate), and Aunt Maggie Far Away (the ethereal Fionnula Flanagan in an award-worthy turn), who only periodically emerges from her silent world to share dreams, prophecies and a smidgen of truth-telling. Also present, as an adopted family of the play, is the Carney’s simpleton neighbor Tom Kettle (a superb Shuler Hensley), whose mere presence angers Patricia.
As beautifully crafted as each of these characters is, one of the most intriguing aspects of The Ferryman is how confidently Butterworth has entrusted much of the play’s emotional (and political) heft to the cast’s younger performers, most notably an excellent Jack DiFalco as braggadocious cousin Shane Corcoran, all too willing to express not just his support of the strikers, but his own (albeit peripheral) involvement with the IRA. Indeed, much of the third act revolves around his lengthy booze-filled conservation with his own brothers, Diarmid (Terence Keely) and the smart-beyond-his-years Declan (a hilarious Michael Quinton McArthur), as well as Quinn’s level-headed oldest sons JJ (Colin Kelley-Sordelet) and Michael (Sean Delaney). Again, like much of The Ferryman, what initially feels like talk for talk’s sake proves to be much more than a mere digression.
In every aspect of this expansive work, The Ferryman proves to be a truly thrilling theatrical ride – and one you’ll deeply regret missing if you don’t grab a ticket.