There’s more family in Jez Butterworth’s new play than “August: Osage County” and “The Sound of Music” combined. “The Ferryman” opened Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, after a long run in London, and it’s exhilarating to see 31 actors on stage, most of them playing characters that are related through blood or marriage. An extended family and their community lives and breathes on stage, even as they are enveloped by the extreme violence of the Troubles.
It’s 1981, in the middle of that Northern Ireland conflict that lasted 30 years and took over 3,500 lives, and the Quinn Carney family is about to enjoy its annual harvest feast on their small farm in County Armagh when the corpse of a long “disappeared” relative is discovered.
Before seeing “The Ferryman,” it’s best to memorize this family tree. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) and his long-suffering wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), have seven children (Fra Fee, Carla Langley, Matilda Lawler, Willow McCarthy, Glenn Speers, Niall Wright), the youngest being a baby of only nine months (Sean Frank Coffey rotates in the role).
They live with Quinn’s lovably intellectual Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert), cranky IRA enthusiast Aunt Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy) and the magically demented Aunt Maggie Faraway (Fionnula Flanagan). Invited to help harvest and enjoy the feast are Quinn’s three nephews (Tom Glynn-Carney, Conor MacNeill, Michael Quinton McArthur) who are visiting from Derry.
Much more central to the story, however, is a non-blood relative, Quinn’s sister-in-law, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), and her teenage son, Oisin (Rob Malone), who have lived in the Carney farmhouse ever since Quinn’s brother, Seamus, “disappeared” 10 years ago.
Back in 1971, Quinn and Seamus were both active in the IRA. Over the years, there have been reports of the brother’s appearance in Dublin and England, but when his corpse is discovered in a bog near the Northern Ireland border, it’s black, well-preserved (“pickled”) in the acidic earth, and there’s a bullet hole in the skull. Did the IRA put it there? And who was responsible for spreading those false reports about Seamus being alive?
It’s quite a set-up for a murder thriller, and any playwright and director who can keep an audience’s attention for three hours and 15 minutes over the course of a three-act play is doing something very right. On that score, Butterworth and Sam Mendes succeed handsomely, especially in a harrowing third act that recalls a Jacobean revenger’s tragedy.
To get there, however, they do a lot of borrowing. First, Butterworth indulges in Tracy Letts’ approach to the sophisticated soap opera, and is especially lavish with the fantasy, if not the reality, of Caitlin’s love life. For a thirtyish woman with a teenage son living on a farm in Northern Ireland, Caitlin has no fewer than three suitors. That comes to one per act.
Butterworth takes several pages from “Of Mice and Men” to fashion the character of the sweet but ultimately lethal English dunce Tom Kettle, who lives on the farm after having been discovered there at age 12 covered in “shite.” Just like that giant gentle Lenny, Tom Kettle (his first name alone is never enough to get his attention) pulls a rabbit out of his coat and even saves the harvest-day feast by walking on stage with a live goose.
Despite the horrors of living through the Troubles, the Carney kids appear to be in an adorability contest with the Von Trapp family. They never fight, throw tantrums and even the baby doesn’t cry (at least not at the performance I attended). At one point, when the harvest dinner flies the goose coop because somebody forgot to lock the barn door, Da Quinn goes so far as to line them up in a military formation very reminiscent of Christopher Plummer’s. The way this family is behaving you’d think they were living through the Cutes.
There’s some method to recalling Rodgers and Hammerstein. Traumatized by the IRA, Quinn has attempted to create a safe haven for his brood, even though the bloody reality is never far away. Aunt Maggie Far Away (Butterworth is very pointed with his names) tells the Carney kids their future, that is, when she isn’t totally catatonic or having visions of violence, which isn’t much of a prophecy considering it’s 1981 in Northern Island. Aunt Maggie’s dementia is even more theatrical, not to mention unbelievable, than that of Mare Winningham’s wise crazy lady in “Girl From the North Country.”
The Carney children are also entertained by their storytelling Uncle Patrick, who channels the best of Barry Fitzgerald when he isn’t quoting from Virgil to explain Butterworth’s title. “They are the unburied; the ferryman is Charon; he may not carry them from the fearful shore on the harsh waters before their bones are at rest in the earth.” It’s always helpful to have a classics-quoting old uncle around the house to give a play profundity.
Butterworth and Mendes know how to whip up the good times and just as quickly send them crashing down. No sooner does the Carney harvest feast turn into a rip-roaring number out of “Riverdance” than Aunt Pat walks in to deliver the latest news on the death count of those imprisoned, hunger-striking IRA members (Bobby Sands, among them).
“The Ferryman” moves like an express, in part because we see its oars churning, even those that are borrowed. There’s nothing subtle about it, and that includes most of the big, broad and often very busy performances that the Tony Awards like to honor.
Where “The Ferryman” enters a totally original space is its thrilling third act, when those Corcoran nephews take center stage to recall attending Bobby Sands’ funeral and falling under the influence the IRA.
Mendes has said of Butterworth’s characters, “There are no good guys or bad guys. It is only shades of grey.” That said, the IRA’s Muldoon (Stuart Graham) is the very darkest shade of grey. He’s so evil that he’s got just one name. Muldoon makes quiet but loaded appearance in the first two acts, but it is the Corcoran boys’ description of him and his tactics that resonates in Act 3, and leads directly to a denouement out of Thomas Middleton. Act 3 also resolves, with great poignancy, Caitlin’s chaste love life.
Early in “The Ferryman,” Aunt Patricia turn up her radio so everyone can listen to the much-despised Margaret Thatcher trash the hunger strikers, the prime minister saying “crime is crime is crime.” In the end, that appears also to be Butterworth’s view. His play has yet to be staged in Ireland. One can only wonder at its reception there.