Entertainment » Theatre

The Ferryman

by Iris Fanger
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 22, 2018
A scene from "The Ferryman," currently at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.
A scene from "The Ferryman," currently at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.  

Three hours plus is barely enough stage time to contain this period in the lives of the extended, unruly, Carney family, portrayed in exquisite, terrifying detail in Jez Butterworth's play, "The Ferryman," that's been transferred to New York from London complete with many actors from the original cast. The play which won a mega-number of awards in England is set in 1981 in County Armagh at the height of the Irish Troubles but reaches back to old feuds and customs and forward to still-simmering tensions that no doubt brought shivers to other viewers beside this writer.

Under the sure hand of film and theater veteran director, Sam Mendes, the action begins after the body of Seamus Carney, missing for ten years, surfaces in a bog. His hand and feet are tied and there's a bullet in the back of his head, suggesting an IRA execution of an informant. The brick wall seen behind the prologue when we are introduced to Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham), a mysterious, take-charge man in black, and Father Horrigan (Charles Dale), opens wide to reveal the cluttered large main room of the Carneys' home, headed by Seamus's brother, Quinn (Paddy Considine), and his wife, Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly). Quinn, brother to Seamus and a former member of the IRA, is now a farmer, living quietly with his brood.

The age range of the Carneys on stage runs from over seventy, including Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) in her wheelchair, and Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Malloy), to Quinn and Mary's baby, under a year old. With Mary, who mostly keeps to her room, Quinn has fathered seven children who run in and out during the course of the play, adding to the lively texture of the family.

Later, the adolescent male cousins arrive, the Corcorans, who come to help with the harvest and stay for the celebration, which includes a goose dinner. We also meet the live goose before his demise, along with a live rabbit, the pet of Tom Kettle. The slow-witted, Kettle (Justin Edwards), an Englishman taken in as a child by Quinn's father, is treated as a member of the family. Caitlin, Seamus's widow (Laura Donnelly), and their 12-year-old son, have been living with Quinn and Mary since Seamus disappeared.

The many intersecting plots unravel with the secrets and lies engendered by the recovery of Seamus's body. The play's title comes from the passage in the Aeneid, Book 6, about Charon, the ferryman who rows the recently dead across the River Styx. A fearsome question is put by Quinn to Father Horrigan after he has brought the news of the recovered body. What happens to the souls of those like Seamus who lie undiscovered without burial? Are they ever at peace, or forced to wander like the unfortunates refused passage by Charon in Virgil's retelling of the myth?

To say that the cast is magnificent in the varied roles is to understate the effect of the actors inhabiting them; from the children behaving in such natural ways, to the remoteness of Aunt Maggie who comes to life relating her life story to an enthralled circle of listeners, to Aunt Pat's constant, angry remembrance of past events, not to mention the complicated tangle of feelings between Quinn, Mary and Caitlin. Considine as Quinn in his conflicting responsibilities as head of house, grieving brother, and care giver is arguably the first of the many, but all the actors rise above the clich├ęs of the Irish condition. The contributions of the design team: Rob Howell for scenery, Peter Mumford for lighting, and Nick Powell as sound designer and composer, add to the naturalistic effect, delivering a visual and aural under tone to the darkness.

Perhaps the most devastating scene comes in the second act when the young men of the family are roistering together over ale and shots of Bushmills, and personifying the divisions among the Irish: those who consider the past as still present, and the others holding hope for a better future. The explosive speech by young Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the violence of its aftermath that ends the play is a reminder of the old but true canard about the sins of the fathers that are never left behind.

"The Ferryman" is playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W 45th Street, New York, NY. For further information, visit the play's website.

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