The genius of Jez Butterworth’s riveting play “The Ferryman,” an import from London, lies in its exuberant portrayal of a family named Carney effectively linked to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The political situation is lethal, but revealed primarily through the colorful character portraits and attitudes vividly expressed. The threads eventually mesh dramatically in a shattering climax after the buildup in the fast-paced three hours and fifteen minutes overall dynamic depiction provided by an unusually large cast under the taut and crisp direction by expert Sam Mendes.
The action takes place in the Carney farmhouse as the family is about to celebrate the harvest with a dinner at which a goose is to be served. The locale is the rural County Armagh in Northern Ireland in the summer of 1981. The gathering is against the background of Republican prisoners conducting a hunger strike in the Maze Prison to gain recognition as political prisoners. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has refused, and nine prisoners, including the noted Bobby Sands, have died.
We get some basic information in a prologue in which Stuart Graham as the tough, menacing local IRA leader Muldoon confronts Charles Dale as the devious Father Horrigan with the demand that he provide help and support after the body of long-missing Seamus Carney has been found in a bog.
As the play subsequently unfolds in set designer Rob Howell’s impressive farmhouse main room, we learn that Seamus, missing for ten years, is the brother of Quinn Carney, sternly played by the excellent Paddy Considine, and the husband of Caitlin Carney, poignantly portrayed by Laura Donnelly. She has a son, Oison, a teenager bereft at the loss of his father and tensely played by Rob Malone.
Quinn, once a member of the IRA, acts as the head of the household. A nagging issue is his belief that IRA targeted Seamus as someone wrongly accused of being an informer, and tortured and killed him, then disposed of him in a bog. Quinn seethes with anger and resists Muldoon’s demand that he pledge to abandon such an accusation, which Muldoon asserts is false, for the need to support the reputation of the IRA. Caitlin is emotionally shattered when she learns of her husband’s body being found, but she stalwartly and bravely wants to delay telling everybody until after the harvest dinner.
What lifts the stature of the play and our enjoyment is the mélange of character portraits. There is Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), Quinn’s wife, who is sickly and withdrawn and struggling as the mother of their seven children, including a baby. The youngsters of varying ages are an amusing lot, sometimes reveling in being naughty with outbursts of profanity.
Dearbhla Molloy is a hoot as Aunt Patricia Carney, a sharp-tongued and profane Republican supporter who calls Margaret Thatcher a bitch and would like to murder her. Mark Lambert is full of bluster as Uncle Patrick. In contrast Fionnula Flanagan as Aunt Maggie sits silently in a wheelchair mostly out of it, but sometimes emerges from her stupor to sing or engage the children with a story from her past, making for a memorable performance.
Tom Kettle, played by Justin Edwards, is a handyman who was born in England, and while friendly, is dim-witted and reminds me of the simple-minded Lennie in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Various other characters flesh out the aggregation in “The Ferryman,” and there is often a rollicking atmosphere in the household, including singing and dancing, which makes the contrasting serious and menacing developments all the more powerful.
To say more about revelations and plot would be spoilers. What you can count on is an experience of unusual dimension, fascinating characters made so life-like, snappy dialogue and staging that keeps one’s attention glued to all that’s happening. “The Ferryman” is certainly a multi-awards candidate this theater season. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 25, 2018.