by JK Clarke
The more risky elements a director inserts into a stage play, the greater the chance that something will go wrong. But acclaimed director of stage (both the 1998 and 2014 Tony Award winning Broadway productions of Cabaret) and screen (the Academy Award winning American Beauty), Sam Mendes has thrown caution to the wind. He’s filled the stage to the absolute brim with everything from actual infants to a live goose in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which has crossed over the Atlantic—following an award-winning West End run—and landed at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on Broadway.
The story is set in 1981 on a family farmhouse in Northern Ireland, amidst “the Troubles,” the frequently violent and deadly Conflict in Ireland over national sovereignty. It is the annual Harvest, and the very ample Carney household is a festive and hard-working mood. While Quinn (a terrific Paddy Considine in his first stage appearance) and his frequently-ill (though probably clinically depressed) wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) have seven children of their own, the household also includes aunts, uncles and Quinn’s sister-in-law Caitlin (excellent Laura Donnelly) and her son. Needless to say, the place is constantly buzzing with activity.
Although it seems the Harvest has started with just one major mishap—the goose, meant to be the centerpiece of the evening’s meal, has escaped—there are more auspicious events in the pipeline. As younger men, in the early 1970s, Quinn and his brother Seamus were involved with the Irish Republican Army (the IRA), the paramilitary faction of the Nationalists, during which time Seamus “disappeared.” In his absence Quinn had taken in his wife Caitlin, and the two had built something of an unrequited relationship as Caitlin managed Quinn’s family mostly on her own. And it’s on this day that the menacing, but politically astute IRA figurehead Muldoon (Stuart Graham), likely loosely based on Gerry Adams, has come to shed light on Seamus’s disappearance and throw the family into chaos.
While the drama surrounding Seamus that’s at the heart of The Ferryman is compelling on its own, the play’s real strength is in its portrayal of the Carney family: their interactions, their humor and their unyielding familial bond through thick and thin. And with it come terrific performances from the staggeringly large cast of 30 and their dynamic characters, among whom are not only several adolescents, but a real-live infant baby (played over the course of the production by no less than five babies, who may very well age out before the end of the run). Matilda Lawler as Honor Carney and Willow McCarthy as Mercy Carney stand out among the younger set. But boosted by Mr. Butterworth’s terrific dialog, nearly all the play’s children are whip-smart, precocious and hilarious. Must be all the whiskey they’re allowed to drink: “Under tens half a thimbleful. Over tens, a thimbleful. No more,” says responsible father, Quinn.
Again and again what rises to the top in The Ferryman are the characters/performers, who absolutely make the show what it is, despite it being a challenge for an American audience to understand a good percentage of the words. Supertitles would be a good idea, though we do tend to get the gist of what’s being said. We can delight in characters like Shena Carney (Carla Langley), a late-teen daughter who’s charged with caring for infant Bobby Carney, to whom she sings delicate, though lyrically inappropriate songs, like David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” (“Time and again I tell/ Myself I’ll stay clean tonight./ But the Little Green Wheels are following/ me Oh No not again”).
And then there’s the delightfully enraged, politically engaged Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy). “You’re as funny as an orphanage on fire,” she tells Quinn. She’s not to be outdone by wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), who’s generally catatonic, but occasionally bursts forth with words of wisdom; or simpleton handyman Tom Kettle, who’s the story’s Lennie Small (Of Mice and Men), though he manages not to accidentally kill any of the sweet creatures he pulls out of his coat pockets. Animal wrangler William Berloni no doubt had his hands full on this production.
The Ferryman’s three plus hours fly by because of so much to see, hear and devour leaving no down time for the audience. With so many characters crammed onto the stage (and fitting so beautifully into Rob Howell’s open architecture farmhouse, so gorgeously lit by Peter Mumford that you’d think it was still daylight outside at times), there’s always something occupying the eye and ear.
Despite many of the portrayals of the Carney family being clichéd and possibly offensive stereotypes, they represent, even in the midst of tragic and troubled times, a celebration of the love, humor and unity of an Irish family. And it is a joy to witness.
The Ferryman. Open run. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). Run time: Three hours, fifteen minutes with one 15 minute intermission and one three minute pause. www.theferrymanbroadway.com
Photos: Joan Marcus