You’ve seen precocious children swear on stage before. You’ve seen compromised priests. You’ve seen adulterous adults. You’ve seen a distraught man carrying a corpse. You’ve seen inebriated young men lose control. You’ve seen a gun waved about; you’ve heard gunshots numerous times. You’ve seen rabbits pulled from hidden places. You’ve even seen a goose. What you’ve likely never seen on stage, however, is an actual infant having his diaper changed, or smiling on cue.
This last item isn’t the one reason to race to see The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s play now on Broadway. None of the above is the one reason to make determined plans to see it. Nor is it the fact that the play won the Evening Standard and other awards in London, or that it’s a cinch to win the Tony Award and other awards for the 2018-19 season.
It’s all of the above. It’s a drama with abundant laughter all about exploding out from the proscenium. You’ll hustle to The Ferryman if it’s the only play you attend this year because, as directed with theatrical dazzle by Sam Mendes, it may well be the best play of the last 10 years.
In a high-ceiled farm kitchen with a straight staircase to an upper floor, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) presides over an extended family, including his seemingly ailing wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) and widowed sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly). There are also Quinn and Mary’s seven children — including infant Bobby (Sean Frank Coffey, Cooper Gomes and Rafael West Vallés, depending on the performance). There’s also Caitlin’s kite-making, nervous son Oisin (Rob Malone).
There are Uncle Patrick Carney (Mark Lambert) and Aunts Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy) and Maggie Faraway (Fionnula Flanagan). There are neighbors, like slow-witted Englishman Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards) and Carney cousins Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney), Diarmaid (Conor MacNeill) and Declan (Michael Quinton McArthur). And there are outsiders, such as Father Horrigan (Charles Dale) and IRA bigwig Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and his various henchmen.
Playwright Butterworth has rounded them all up to explore the violent reach of the Irish Republican Army during The Troubles, when Bobby Sands died from hunger strikes and Margaret Thatcher vowed no compromise.
In fact, the immediate situation is within the Carney clan itself. Seamus, Quinn’s brother, missing for 10 years and feared murdered, is found a local bog. He was bound, tortured and shot in the head. His death was apparently revenge for Quinn quitting the IRA after accumulating too much blood on his hands. During the harvest, at a Carney family feast, Muldoon arrives to extract a promise that Quinn won’t implicate the IRA in what was, very plainly, Seamus’ assassination. Muldoon also knows, courtesy of Butterworth’s clever plot, that Quinn is alternating between loving Mary and his attraction to Caitlin.
So will he or won’t he? Before Butterworth answers the question, numerous household activities hold sway. In fact, the playwright has no failure of imagination when it comes to these, such as Auntie Pat, a smiling IRA supporter and an unflappable Margaret Thatcher hater who deliberately causes upset whenever she can and seems to be the family member who recognizes the Quinn-Caitlin connection. Or Auntie Maggie Faraway, who spends much of her day in a wheelchair staring silently ahead but then, even once in a while, comes to life and in a mesmerizing sequence tells tales to the children and answers their impertinent questions about her past.
Tom Kettle, who has a penchant for producing apples from the greatcoat where he keeps live rabbits, knows he’s rather dim but still doesn’t shy from declaring his feelings for one of the women. Carney sons James Joseph (Niall Wright) and Michael (Fra Fee) are lively cut-ups. (Fee is credited as dance captain, and there are several high-spirited dances.) As a mean troublemaker, Glynn-Carney’s Shane gets to rule the ever-darkening proceedings.
In other words, when it comes to ensemble performing, every member here has at least one — and very often more — opportunities to become his or her own spotlight. You’ve seen outstanding ensembles during Broadway’s glorious past, but none surpasses this one. Watch for any number of Tony nominees: Considine, O’Reilly, Donnelly, Flanagan and Molly are on my tip sheet.
Since the Irish Troubles have calmed down — there have been no IRA bomb scares in London for some years now — it may seem as if The Ferryman (the title comes from Ovid) isn’t immediately compelling. Not so. Great Britain muddles through as Brexit undermines morale — and as Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. Divisiveness in the US is endemic. Political upheaval around the world is commonplace as families struggle to stay intact. The Ferryman, in its joy, in its despair, is thrillingly current.