In ancient Greek mythology, Charon is the daemon who ferries the souls of the deceased to Hades across the river Styx, which divides the worlds of the living and the dead. In Jez Butterworth’s Olivier Award-winning drama The Ferryman, making its Broadway debut at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, it’s a busy job. Considering the personal impact of the incendiary politics of Northern Ireland and the actions of the Irish Republican Army on one extended family and its circle of friends, Butterworth’s densely-layered story is heavily laden with symbolism, filled with dark humor and rampant horror, and rich with insights into the human condition, antithetical perceptions of justice, and the psychology of all-consuming hatred, vengeance, and violence.
Set during harvest time in the Carney family’s rustic farmhouse in rural County Armagh in the late summer of 1981 – at the height of the IRA hunger strike that claimed the lives of Bobby Sands and other fellow prisoners – the historically-based fiction delivers a powerful Biblical message to generations of embattled Catholics and Protestants alike: You reap what you sow. As the body of IRA defector Seamus Carney is found in a bog years after his disappearance, the head honchos of the militant republican organization threaten his priest, wife, brother, and his family, in order to silence accusations of the strong-arm tactics they use – even against their own.
Under the rich and compelling direction of Sam Mendes, a stellar all-ages ensemble of 22 (plus a live goose and bunny) brings Butterworth’s writing and characters to life, interweaving gritty realism with the traditions of Irish storytelling and folklore, and interspersing everyday exchanges with exquisite passages of poetic language and sardonic obscenity-laced tirades (even by the young children), as the family works, plays, shares stories of lost love and brutality (even with the children), converses and fights, fueled by the beer and whisky they swill to excess (even the children). The dysfunctional Irish archetypes (or are they stereotypes?) are often funny, but always deeply disturbing, and the metaphors of the innocent bunny and the goose – escaped from the farm, only to be recaptured and slaughtered for the harvest feast, but killed in vain, when the celebrants choose dancing and drinking instead of eating – are alarming portents of the ultimate fate of the children and their future descendants.
The cast’s characterizations are eloquent and engaging, with not a weak link among them. Uncle Patrick (portrayed by Mark Lambert) embodies the Irish gift of gab and taste for the bottle, in contrast with the cantankerous Aunt Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy), a longtime Anglophobe and adamant IRA supporter, while Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) moves in and out of a state of dementia, mostly sitting in silence, but occasionally recounting barbarous stories and issuing unsettling prophecies. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) is the high-principled head of household, turned to farming to escape the brutality of his era and to provide for his aunts and uncle, depressed wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), high-spirited sister-in-law Caitlyn (Laura Donnelly), and their children (the outspoken and foul-mouthed Honor, played by Matilda Lawler, is a standout), until the actions of the slow-witted English farm helper Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards) and the menacing visit of Muldoon (Stuart Graham) – the cold-blooded leader of the IRA – force him to make some hard decisions. The teenage sons and their friends (portrayed with youthful zeal and commitment by Fra Fee, Niall Wright, Rob Malone, Tom Glynn-Carney, Conor MacNeil, and Michael Quinton McArthur) reflect the clashing attitudes and questionable choices of their elders, leaving little hope that there will be any quick or easy resolution to the ongoing antipathy and atrocities in the near future.
In a world of never-ending conflict, The Ferryman, though its particular narrative is site- and time-specific, offers a potent universal reminder, from Aeschylus to the Gospel of Matthew, that those who “live by the sword, die by the sword” and, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Hate begets hate, violence begets violence.” Let’s hope we will all remember that message, long after seeing this unforgettable production.
Running Time: Approximately three hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.