The original Broadway cast of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, most of whom had played the piece together in London, was altogether superb. With a richly dense masterwork of this sort, the performers—in rehearsal, during the Royal Court premiere, in preparation for the West End transfer, and once again working together toward the Broadway opening in October—benefited from repeated access to the author and director. Which can’t be expected with replacement actors or future productions.
On the other hand, dramatic classics of this caliber have enough built into the script to allow any subsequent group of actors—suitably cast and properly directed—to do equally well. Few of us saw the original author-supervised productions of Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey, Raisin in the Sun, or King Lear. So there’s only so much to be said for the inherent advantage of seeing the original cast.
All of which is to say that The Ferryman, now with American actors in 17 of the 22 roles, is every bit as powerful as it was when it opened on Broadway in October and in London in 2017. Give credit, foremost, to the playwright for creating such a towering edifice of a play. We needn’t once more praise the text, the author, or director Sam Mendes (along with his design team); said praise can be found virtually across the critical board.
The central role of Quinn Carney is now undertaken by Brian d’Arcy James, who has always been a strong dramatic actor (Time Stands Still) despite his continued success in musical comedy (Something Rotten!). He is sternly compelling here, with that trademark scowl of his—underlined by those heavy eyebrows—bringing added expressiveness to key emotional moments. At other times, he aptly embodies an overtaxed father at the mercy of his adolescent daughters. Emily Bergl (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) takes on the role of the invalid wife, Mary. I have thus far seen three Quinns and three Marys, all of them excellent; but the struggle between husband and wife, as brought out in the last-act dissection of their estrangement, has never played so well for me. (“We said two or three months,” says Bergl, in a stabbing manner that explains it all.) And as she distractedly descends that long staircase, I had a brief flash of Mary Tyrone, intentional or not.
Mark Lambert, who originated the loquacious Uncle Patrick, and Dearbhla Molloy who did the same for the ornery Aunt Patricia, were unmatchable, or so it seemed. Yet, two familiar New York character actors step into the roles and give performances every bit as vibrant while adding newly-found nuance. Fred Applegate has heretofore specialized in musical comedy (Young Frankenstein, Sister Act) to the extent that one might have expected him to fill Patrick with charismatic blarney and let it go at that. Instead, his digging into the character displays added relevance to the discussion of Charon, Virgil’s mythical ferryman on the River Styx, and enhances his stinging rebuke of the family priest upon discovering his duplicity.
Ann McDonough, last seen to good effect as a biased school administrator in Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, also does more than replicate her predecessor’s vicious, Maggie Thatcher-bashing termagant. There is a physical vulnerability to McDonough—the way she gingerly crosses the kitchen, for example, so as to hide her painful infirmity from the others—that pays off when we learn of the events of the 1916 Easter Rebellion, which turned her irremediably bitter.
Fionnula Flanagan, now in her final week, is giving an unforgettable and altogether brilliant performance as Aunt Maggie Faraway. (The estimable Blair Brown takes over the role on April 16.) Also on hand from the London and original Broadway casts is Charles Dale as Father Horrigan. Either he has gotten stronger or my increasing familiarity with the text has allowed me to pay more attention to the character. Dale embodies the conflicted priest, with his own moral dilemma amplified as he more clearly registers his complicit guilt.
Also now featured is Shuler Hensley as Tom Kettle. I have in my prior visits mused—despite the program listings—that it might actually be Hensley up there on stage; he’s an actor who specializes in expressing an inner realty within hulking/menacing characters, previously winning an Olivier and a Tony in the process. (Could Butterworth have been thinking of Hensley when he devised the role?) In his hands, Tom Kettle appears to be a man of some sensitivity tortured by the awareness that he doesn’t have the verbal or emotional ability to ably communicate his thoughts. This makes his dinner-table speech, his late-night scene with Caitlin, and his final entrance with Oisin even more affecting than before.
In fairness, let us note that two of the principals are not thus far as strong as their predecessors. Holley Fain can’t be expected to match Laura Donnelly, who not only created the role of Caitlin but more or less lived it in Belfast. (Her uncle was one of the 16 Irish Catholics who were “disappeared” during the Troubles. When Donnelly related her family history to Butterworth, her partner, he started to conceive this fictionalized account.) Fain, a relative newcomer, doesn’t yet display the authority to rule over the stage as Donnelly did. Ralph Brown is fine as the IRA leader Muldoon, but doesn’t have those smiles that chill you to the bone that his predecessor did.
One of the complexities of The Ferryman is the mystery behind the disappearance and death of Quinn’s unseen brother Seamus. Butterworth carefully leaves this unspecified for the audience, just as it is for the extended Carney family. On a fourth viewing, one can glean that the author has carefully spelled this out in plain sight, albeit in a purposely oblique manner. Skip the following paragraph if you don’t want to know.
The action takes place in August 1981, at the end of the 1981 Hunger Strike. Bobby Sands, the first of the victims, died on May 5, 1981. Piecing random threads together, we learn that: The “newsboy” was first spotted by Muldoon at the funeral; that they had their “wristwatch” meeting in early June; that the laundry van incident occurred four weeks before the date of the play; and that the event “in the boarded up house on the Palace Road,” which precipitates the play, occurred a week after the bombing—and thus, within weeks of the opening scene. All of which only supports the conclusion that every line and action of the play is carefully wrought by Butterworth, with nothing extraneous. Except maybe for that darlin’ Cleopatra.
The Ferryman is not to be missed. It is a great pleasure to discover that this production remains just as strong with the replacement cast of American actors. Yes, the play is every bit as good as they say; and yes, people interested in becoming lifelong theatergoers should seize this opportunity to see a future classic play in its original form before it closes on July 7. (Word to the wise: tickets are likely more available now than they will be after the play inevitable takes a clutch of Tony nominations on April 30.) And those who have thus far shied away in fear of three-plus hours of harsh accents can now rest easy. Although they most certainly won’t rest easy during the emotionally thrilling, edge-of-the-seat gripping, seriously funny and altogether heartwarming Ferryman.
The Ferryman opened October 21, 2018, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (with the replacement cast beginning February 19, 2019) and runs through July 7. Tickets and information: theferrymanbroadway.com