It’s virtually impossible to describe The Ferryman without using the word epic. Since Jez Butterworth’s drama opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in May 2017, transferred to the West End, won a pile of awards, and made the move to Broadway, where it just opened, much has been made of its size: its 195-minute running time (which, frankly, feels like 90); the 30-plus cast members (which I suspect does not include the bunny rabbit and the goose); the mess of children (almost half the characters on stage are aged 16 and younger, including one cherub-cheeked 9-month-old baby boy); and, perhaps most important, the backdrop—the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s bloody 30-year conflict over Irish unification, and a group called the Disappeared (the 1981-set play begins with the discovery of a body of a man who’s been missing for a decade).
There’s no denying that The Ferryman is epic, and undeniably Butterworth’s best play (apologies to fans of the allegorical, and almost equally lengthy, Jerusalem). Yet at its abundant heart, The Ferryman is a wrenching family drama, whose most moving moments are its most spare and most intimate—starting with the very beginning of Act 1: an early-morning game of Connect Four, a near-empty bottle of Bushmills, and a Rolling Stones/Beatles/Led Zeppelin debate between Quinn Carney (the immensely appealing Paddy Considine) and Caitlin Carney (a luminous Laura Donnelly, who also starred in Butterworth’s The River) that culminates with a small fire, both literal and figurative. Later, it’s Quinn who must tell Cait that her long-missing husband, Seamus, his brother, has turned up dead in a bog. And it’s Quinn who decides to confront Muldoon (Stuart Graham), who’s come to offer “condolences” and to “personally assure” the family that “whatever happened to Seamus all those years ago, whatever went on, that the IRA had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
Director Sam Mendes—who does his best work with plays (see: The Winter’s Tale, The Cherry Orchard, and more)—is a master at orchestrating chaotic scenes, such as when the whole Carney clan—more than a dozen of them, including amiable patriarch Quinn and his distant wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly)—rolls downstairs, giddy with anticipation of the upcoming harvest. Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) is already unscrewing the whiskey and unspooling his signature stories of harvests past—much to the consternation of Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy). “You know what irks me most about this ‘story’?” she barks. “Nothing happens. No one gets drunk. No one feels up no one they shouldn’t. No one falls into the grain silo and drowns. There’s not even a good punch up.” (When they discover that the goose—aka dinner—has done a runner, Aunt Pat deadpans, “At least it’ll give you a half-decent story to tell.”)
Yet you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat during even the most sedate scenes. You can hear a pin drop when wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan)—named so because she drifts in and out and goes who knows where—regales the Carney girls with tales of her unrequited love for Francis John Patrick Maloney (“I swear to Christ I could have ridden that boy from here to Connemara”) and of Aunt Pat’s older brother, who fought with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“Right before he died he looked her in the eye … and he smiled and said ‘Death to the English, Pat’”). And when teenage firebrand Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney) riles up Caitlin’s impressionable son, Oisin (Rob Malone). And when Mary and Quinn finally confront their troubled marriage: “I forgot how to make you smile. I forgot how to make you laugh.”
It’s not a spoiler to say that The Ferryman ends tragically—as so many epics do. But it ends so ferociously, in such a glorious burst of action, predictions, and promises, that a follow-up would not be unwelcome. After more than three hours, it feels like The Ferryman has just begun.
The Ferryman opened Oct. 21, 2018, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and runs through July 7, 2019. Tickets and information: theferrymanbroadway.com