×

Broadway Review: ‘The Ferryman’

A joyous harvest feast at the Carney household in rural Northern Ireland is tragically disrupted by the political realities of the Troubles.

With:
Dean Ashton, Sean Frank Coffey, Paddy Considine, Charles Dale, Laura Donnelly, Justin Edwards, Fra Fee, Fionnula Flanagan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cooper Gomes, Stuart Graham, Mark Lambert, Carla Langley,  Matilda Lawler, Conor MacNeill, Rob Malone, Michael Quinton McArther, Willow McCarthy, Dearbhla Molloy, Genevieve O’Reilly, Brooklyn Shuck, Glenn Speers, Rafael West Vallés, Niall Wright.

Glorious is not too strong a word for director Sam Mendes’s production of Jez Butterworth’s heartbreaker of a play, “The Ferryman.” Flawless ensemble work by a large and splendid cast adds depth to the characters in this sprawling drama that is at once a domestic calamity and a political tragedy.

The year is 1981 and Ireland has been partitioned for more than half a century. Ten Republican participants in the Irish Hunger Strikes would die that year, beginning with the political martyr Bobby Sands. More than 100,000 people would attend his funeral in Northern Belfast, causing Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, to recruit new members and grow in strength. Soon, the bombings would begin.

For now, though, thoughts of the Troubles are well out of mind in the large Carney household, barely contained in the heavily rustic setting designed with impressive visual integrity by Rob Howell (set) and Peter Mumford (lighting). It’s harvest time, the most solemn and joyous time of the year in rural Ireland, where native roots go deep. From “Jerusalem,” a previous Broadway transfer, we already know that Butterworth traces native roots all the way back to ancient times. Here, Uncle Patrick Carney, the family patriarch played with great authority and grand humor by Mark Lambert, takes a broad view of these connections.

“All Hail Demeter!” Uncle Pat jovially toasts the harvest gods with a glass of good Irish whiskey.  “Goddess of the Corn. Mother of the Harvest. You who made the first loaf, the bread our Savior broke — and this here wee drop of Bushmills. Slainte!”

That belief in the magic of the ancient gods is rooted in the very soil that nurtures the Carney clan and to which they will eventually return. As we learn in a tense prologue, one clan member, Sean Carney, missing these ten years, has already been laid in the bog — with a bullet in his head — long before his natural time.

The enchanted if foreboding sense of place is part of the family lore, captured in a folk song sung by Aunt Maggie Far Away, who is played with an ethereal air by the treasured Fionnula Flanagan: “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a Fairy hand in hand / For the world’s more full of weeping / Than you can understand.” Aunt Maggie Far Away, who came by her name for good reason, is the family soothsayer, the teller of tales that make the little ones go bump in the night.

Begged by the children for a creepy story, she complies with a tale of “the great Faerie battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tanuth Dé!” that has everyone shivering with delight.  “I love this one!” a little one exclaims. “It’s so violent!” For an encore, Maggie follows that one up with the story of her own secret love for one Francis John Patrick Maloney, a personal reminiscence of such painful beauty that it leaves a musical echo in the air.

Music is always in the air of this storytelling household, from the ribald songs the children chant and the boisterous choral clamor of the foot-stomping young men to the haunting airs that Aunt Maggie quietly hums from her seat in the warm corner of the kitchen. To that, we must add the music of Butterworth’s own prose, sweet as springtime, lush as summer, bittersweet as autumn, deathly as winter.

The domestic dramas in this household are as primal as those in any Greek tragedy, if not as classically restrained. Quinn Carney, the family breadwinner played with quiet conviction and an air of melancholy by Paddy Considine, oversees a household of seven children (some played by excellent child performers who are wonderfully unselfconscious), two aunts, an uncle and Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), the sturdy but secretly vulnerable kitchen goddess of this house. Drifting through the crowd, too, is Genevieve O’Reilly’s beautiful, wraithlike Mary.

At some point, Aunt Maggie’s tales of banshees and fairies give way to more ominous stories about the lives lost in civil strife, battles that are drawing closer by the minute to the Carney household. As a candid counterpoint to Aunt Maggie and her lovely, lyrical yarns, Butterworth gives us Aunt Patricia Carney, a blunt-spoken truth-teller in Dearbhla Molloy’s marvelously cruel and cranky performance. The unsentimental voice of reason, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking Aunt Pat can always be counted on to cut through the romantic poetry and speak the bitter truth.

The tensions that are brewing in Act One come to a head in Act Two, when the harvest is in and the Carneys and the Corcorans and the rest of the harvesters sit down to eat the cooked goose that Caitlin has prepared for the feast. But it’s clear that this is only a momentary respite from the war that is rending Ireland. Uncle Pat makes the point obliquely, when he reminds the family that Darius The Great stopped The Persian War to give the Greeks time to harvest their grapes. “Because even a war-thirsty blood-monger like Darius knew the harvest is sacred. The harvest is breath and life and spirit and hope.”

The sad thing, indeed, the tragedy of it, is that this time, not even the harvest is sacred. And we can only watch in horror and dread as the extraordinary characters that Butterworth has brought to life are snuffed out, emotionally and in some cases literally, by political events that not even the harvest gods have the power to vanquish from this bloody, war-ridden earth.

Broadway Review: 'The Ferryman'

Bernard B. Jacobs Theater; 1,019 seats; $165 top. Opened October 21, 2018, reviewed Oct. 18. Running time: THREE HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Sonia Friedman Productions, Neal Street Productions, Ronald Frankel, Gavin Kalin Productions, Roy Furman / Ben Lowy, Scott M. Delman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Ron Kastner, Starry Night Entertainment, Kallish Weinstein Creative, Scott Landis, Steve Traxler, Richard Winkler, Rona Delves Broughton / William Damashke, 1001 Nights, Burnt Umber Productions, Rupert Gavin, Scott Rudin, Jamie DeRoy / Catherine Adler, Sam Levy / Lauren Stevens, and Ramin Sabi / Christopher Ketner of a play in two acts by Jez Butterworth.

Creative: Directed by Sam Mendes. Sets, Rob Howell; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound designer and composer, Nick Powell; choreography, Scarlett Mackmin; production stage manager, Jill Cordle.

Cast: Dean Ashton, Sean Frank Coffey, Paddy Considine, Charles Dale, Laura Donnelly, Justin Edwards, Fra Fee, Fionnula Flanagan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cooper Gomes, Stuart Graham, Mark Lambert, Carla Langley,  Matilda Lawler, Conor MacNeill, Rob Malone, Michael Quinton McArther, Willow McCarthy, Dearbhla Molloy, Genevieve O’Reilly, Brooklyn Shuck, Glenn Speers, Rafael West Vallés, Niall Wright.

More Legit

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

  • Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac to Star in Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' Adaptation

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac are taking on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The company announced on Tuesday that they will feature two final performances to round out the 2019 to 2020 season, including the Chekhov play. “Three Sisters” will be directed by Tony award-winning Sam [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content