By Paige Allen
June 6, 2019
There is a thrill in seeing something onstage that is difficult to control because of its reality. Take, for example, live animals. No matter how trained the animal may be, it is still an animal and may make noise or run off the stage at any moment. In this case, the potential “wrong” might be comedic to watch. But replace the example of live animals with the example of fire. Suddenly, no matter the safety precautions, the stakes become much higher. The audience experience in these cases is a mixture of wonderment and unease: it’s exhilarating to watch, not just because the animal is cute or the fire is beautiful, but because at any moment something just might go wrong.
Jez Butterworth’s sweeping play “The Ferryman” is filled with these thrilling moments of awe and anxiety. The reality of the play itself seems to be straining between joy and dread — between feasts and fights, celebration and suspicion, stories and secrets — as the potential for the worst to happen steadily increases.
To be sure, it is undoubtedly the reality of the play; describing “The Ferryman” as realistic would be an understatement. The Carney family is not only situated in but gripped by the political realities of Northern Ireland in 1981. Fitting the at-once expansive and intimate nature of the piece, Rob Howell’s set welcomes the audience into the Carney family home and boasts a remarkable level of detail. When Caitlin Carney (played by the untiring Holley Fain) opens the windows for the first time, nothing less than the light of an Irish morning pours in.
Not to forget, of course, those thrilling realities I mentioned that so capture the audience’s attention with their unpredictability. “The Ferryman” is brimming with them. Within the first thirty minutes of the play, the audience is exposed to fire (both controlled and seemingly uncontrolled), a rabbit, a goose, and a baby (who easily captures our hearts at the top of the second act, played by Jackson Arevalo, Alexandros Kekos-Presson, Annie Scarfuto, and Jack Stewart).
The more “predictable” actors create these moments of intense reality as well. Sam Mendes’s direction unifies a 22-person cast and sets them into motion like intricate clockwork. The Carney house bustles with sound and movement. Fain is perhaps the most impressive as Caitlin as she moves through the room opening drawers, washing at the sink, and hanging laundry to dry with the confidence of a woman who has taken care of a huge household for ten years. I wholly believe that if an audience member shouted, “Where’s the salt?,” Fain would be able to answer.
When this sound and motion is pulled away, a different sort of reality is found. When the well-meaning and sympathetic Englishman Tom Kettle (given poignant life by Shuler Hensley) kneels to gather scattered playing cards, the audience watches with breaking hearts as he takes his time to silently and painstakingly pick up each card from the ground. We know it will take as long as Hensley needs.
The realism in “The Ferryman” is so carefully constructed that the moments in which that realism is superseded by something else, something more stylized and more viscerally emotive, become even more striking. Oisin Carney (Ethan Dubin) stands staring across the stage at the bound and hanging corpse of a goose. Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) shuffles in the night toward a window. These moments grow beyond the literal and — with the help of Peter Mumford’s haunting sound and Nick Powell’s chilling lights — become so much more, ringing as ominous echoes of past and future.
Make no mistake: in its realism, the play does not forget its audience. Aunt Maggie speaks directly to us when she tells her stories as though we are the Carney girls listening to her, though she seems to understand that we are not. As Aunt Patricia Carney (played by the forceful Ann McDonough) speaks to Caitlin and Mary Carney (Emily Bergl), she shares an inside joke with the rest of the room, directly addressing assumptions the audience has made in the scenes prior.
In fact, there are several moments of dramatic irony in the piece that encourage us to verbally wince, particularly when the Carney children inadvertently pour salt into wounds with their comments.
These moments which stretch beyond reality or lean into dramatic irony may come across as a bit heavy-handed. Yes, I am saying it: for all the mysteries the play gradually reveals, all the political backstory with which its audience may or may not be familiar, and all the names of children it takes an act to learn, the play can be a bit on the nose at times. Yet, somehow, “The Ferryman” manages to be on the nose in a way which feels more like “twisting the knife” than “beating a dead horse,” and that is a feat.
The play also expertly juggles a range of tones. As wrenching as “The Ferryman” can be, the play evokes more than an underlying, steady heartbreak. The piece is genuinely funny; laughs are notably provided by a lovable Fred Applegate in the role of Uncle Patrick Carney and the hilarious Carney girls: Shena (Julia Nightingale), Mercy (Willow McCarthy), Honor (Matilda Lawler), and Nunu (Brooklyn Shuck).
While I’ve seen sad plays with their share of laughs before, few plays can make me inadvertently grin like a child, and “The Ferryman” succeeded. When the Carneys broke out into their festive Irish jig, I found myself with my chin in my hands, smiling widely as I watched. Life emanated from the stage, and the whole Bernard B. Jacobs Theater was brimming with joy—until it wasn’t.
In its way, the whole of “The Ferryman” is a dance with characters repeating their own or each other’s steps and giving them new meaning. Many moments and relationships in the play have reflections or twisted repetitions, like Caitlin’s two dances which strike very different chords.
I will not spoil further parallels, but I will point out how all of the characters share a potential to explode. This quality is explicitly attributed to Aunt Pat and to Caitlin, but it is perhaps best exemplified by the house’s patriarch, Quinn Carney (stunningly played by Brian D’Arcy James). As the tension grows, over and over again Quinn manages to keep his emotions in check until he snaps.
“The Ferryman” is imbued with a growing tension, the kind of suspense found in ghost stories and crime novels. We listen to these stories in the way we watch fire burning next to blindfolded actors or a baby alone at the edge of a stage: with a combination of wonderment and trepidation.
Yet, “The Ferryman” is more than a crime thriller or a haunting tale. It manages to incorporate a wide swath of stories into its narrative: personal accounts, family legends, cultural folklore, Elizabethan and ancient poetry, political songs, and national history. The play simultaneously asks, “What stories should we be telling?” and “What kind of story is this?”
“The Ferryman” may in fact be so thrilling because its audience watches questioning, wondering, dreading the kind of story it will turn out to be.
BCS-friendliness* rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I was surprised and impressed with the ease of getting cheap tickets to “The Ferryman” — and at the last minute. I bought my tickets at about 4:30pm for a 7pm performance that day for $59 (plus fees) on TodayTix. According to the TKTS app, there seemed to be tickets left at that point with them as well for about the same price.
“The Ferryman” does also offer same-day rush tickets for $40, available at the theater when the box office opens.
I was seated in the rear mezzanine, and I loved my view. I was in the front row, so I had no one in front of me (the regular mezzanine is set a bit lower down and separated from the rear mezzanine by a break). I could see everything, and multiple times during the play I was grateful that I could see the full stage picture. Even in the rear mezzanine, I definitely felt like I was part of the experience and did not feel distanced from the actors or the action.
*BCS-friendliness, or Broke College Student friendliness, is a rating I give to shows based on the ease of buying cheap seats and the quality of viewing from those seats. Check the About page for more information.