NEW YORK CITY – There are many reasons to celebrate the arrival of “The Ferryman” on Broadway. It’s an epic tale that pulsates danger and romance. It’s big. It has 21 speaking parts, each one being essential to the story told. It’s long – three hours and 15 minutes – and there are times it shows its length, but when finished you realize not a moment should be cut.
But what makes “The Ferryman” worth seeing is that it does what good theater should do - it tells a compelling story. Jez Butterworth, who also wrote “Jerusalem” is a storyteller who specializes in making big themes accessible.
What makes “The Ferryman” special is that it’s intelligent without being pretentious and specific while being universal. It’s a complicated tale, but you never lose the story. Everything supports everything else. All is connected. Like life itself, when the future seems predictable, unexpected events change everything.
The setting is a farmhouse in Northern Ireland. The Carneys are a huge family.
Quinn and Mary have seven children. Living with them is sister-in-law Caitlin and her teenage son Oisin.
Also living in the home are two elderly aunts, both trapped by the past. One, Aunt Pat, thrives on her hatred of the English, while Aunt Maggie (called Far Away because she moves in and out of lucidity) lives in a world of myth and pleasant memories. There is also uncle Pat, who loves Greek literature and Irish whisky with the same ferver.
Living with the family is a dimwitted, gentle giant of a man. Tom Kettle was taken into the family as an infant and serves as a handyman. It’s important to note that the family is passionate Irish, but most accept that Tom is of English blood. Also appearing on stage is a live goose, a couple of rabbits and a baby.
It’s 1981, the time of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Younger members of the IRA, like Bobby Sands, are starving themselves to death while in prison. Helicopters fly overhead and bombings are a daily occurrence. No one trusts anyone and families are torn apart by political passion. The English are despised and the IRA is feared.
In contrast to this national bleakness, on the farm it’s the day of the harvest. Daylight will be labor intensive and the evening will be a time for feasting and celebration. Joining the family are a trio of young relatives who help with the harvest. Adding to the irony of the situation is the grain being harvested will be shipped to Poland to feed pigs, while in a local prison the youth of the country die of starvation in the name of freedom and liberty.\
Interrupting this time-honored harvest ritual is the discovery that morning of the preserved body of Shamus Carney in a nearby bog. He was the husband of Caitlin and the brother of Quinn. Shamus has been missing for 10 years and as a young man, he was presumed murdered by the IRA for being disloyal to the terrorist organization.
The discovery disrupts everyone’s life. Most important, it brings the IRA into the family home in the form of Muldoon, an IRA leader who demands the family not speak ill of the organization. It is a time of political gain for the IRA and there can be no dissention within the population. The sinister, business-like Muldoon is representative of what can happen to a society when those with the best of intentions become as vile as the enemy it is fighting.
As Quinn discovers, once you sacrifice your principles in the name of the greater good, those in power demand even more from you. Indeed, if there can be found an overriding theme in a work as big and as bold as “The Ferryman,” it is that evil in the name of good, is still evil.
It is this idea that lifts the work beyond being a political drama. “The Ferryman” is a play about the Carney family. But, it is essentially about how families become clans, how clans become tribes and tribes become nations. And inevitably, nations war with each other. It is the history and the tragedy of humanity.
“The Ferryman” is so sprawling that it sometimes flirts in a dangerous way with melodrama. Each character seems to deserve his or her own play or short story. This means each role has to be played perfectly. This cast is up to the task. I haven’t named any actor, nor mentioned the technical team. But, be certain that when Tony Awards are handed out – they will be recognized.
“The Ferryman” at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on 45ThStreet, New York City.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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