A few years ago I saw a production of Jez Butterworth's Jersusalem, starring perhaps the best stage actor on the planet, Mark Rylance. It was amazing. This past October, I got to chat with actor Brian d'Arcy James, a three-time Tony nominee, and we both confessed to our admiration for Rylance. (I recounted that I met Rylance walking his dog outside the theater and almost passed out with excitement). Brian told me I should go see The Ferryman, Butterworth's brilliant new play that just opened on Broadway.
Other people I respect had also told me to go see it, but I never got around to it. Then I heard that Brian d'Arcy James was going to be in the cast of The Ferryman starting in February and that sealed the deal for me.
The Ferryman tells the story of a Northern Irish farming family in 1981, right around the time when Irish prisoners (including Bobby Sands) were on a hunger strike, asking to be recognized as political prisoners, something Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unwilling to do. There was a lot of violence between the IRA and the British forces.
The Carney family is preparing for the harvest, and the annual celebration that goes along with that. The huge household consists of Quinn and his wife Mary, their seven children, two aunts, an uncle, a sister-in-law and nephew. There is much joy and merriment, singing and dancing, until the local priest shows up.
Father Horrigan (a great performance from Charles Dale) has some troubling news for Quinn, news that once it gets out turns everything in the household upside down.
The Ferryman has 21 speaking parts (and a baby!) and Butterworth manages to make each character distinct, a remarkable feat. Quinn holds his boisterous family together, with the help of his brother's wife Caitlin, who cooks and cleans, as Quinn's wife Mary appears to be fragile. She spends much of her time in her room. (To be fair, she has seven children.)
Uncle Pat recounts humorous stories to the children, while his serious sister Aunt Pat monitors the hunger strike situation on the radio. Aunt Maggie gets wheeled in to sit fairly motionless in the corner, waking occasionally to speak to the children, telling them of the futures she sees for them.
Neighbor Tom Kettle (wonderfully portrayed by Shuler Hensley) is a large man who lives nearby and spends time with the family. Because he is English, some people are suspicious of him. But he is gentle giant, prone to pulling a stray rabbit of his pocket as a gift to people.
As the harvest continues, the Carneys' young cousins come to help, and as young men sometimes do, get caught up in the situations over their head. When the local IRA boss comes to visit, things begin to unravel.
As I sat in the audience, I was wondering how this play was going to end. I truly had no idea, and when the end came, the shock of it deeply affected the audience, their gasps proof of that. (That being said, there is one plot point that pretty much everyone can guess at.)
Normally I would be wary of going to a play with a running time of three hours and fifteen minutes, but Butterworth has packed so much into this production I never once checked my watch. This is a show that I could imagine seeing more than once to go back and try and absorb things you missed the first time.
Brian d'Arcy James is perfection in the role of Quinn. He is a proud man, trying to keep all the balls in the air, keep everything together, all the while hinting at something simmering under the surface.
It is truly an ensemble production, and the young children in the cast are wonderful. They seem like young children, not actorly in any way. Emily Bergl (Mary), Holly Fain (Caitlin) and Fionnula Flanagan ( Aunt Maggie, who I fondly remember from TV's Rich Man, Poor Man) are particularly strong in their roles.
I think I would like to find the book of The Ferryman to truly get everything I can from this stunning play. It has rightly been lauded as one of the best plays of the year, and it will surely be up for many Tony awards in June, including for the brilliant direction of Sam Mendes. There are discount tickets available for this, including rush tickets. Go see it, this is a don't-miss play.