By Lucy Komisar
It‘s 1981 in Northern Ireland. The body of an IRA militant who disappeared ten years before has been found, preserved in a bog. An IRA chief, Muldoon (the threatening Stuart Graham) is worried how Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), the man‘s brother, will react, because he is a former IRA activist and knows or suspects how the victim died.
Muldoon summons a priest, Father Horrigan (Charles Dale), to get him to visit Carney who is living with his family on a farm near the southern border, to feel out his reaction. When Horrigan demurs, Muldoon threatens his sister. Horrigan will acquiesce, so, morality already takes a hit.
But in Jez Butterworth‘s gorgeous play, directed by Sam Mendes with subtle power and intelligence, that dark moment suddenly is transformed into a charming rough idyll of Irish family life. Irish because it involves a brood of seven children, a lot of whiskey drinking, wit and occasional dancing of jigs.
That section is perhaps a too long in a play that runs over three hours. But it takes time to establish confusion. Are Quinn and Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly), dancing and playing around at night, husband and wife? Later, a young woman comes down stairs with a baby. Is she the mother? Another woman will descend, and we learn she, Mary (Genevieve O‘Reilly) is the mother of seven and the wife of Quinn. Why is she always in a nightdress?
The bits of the story come together. Caitlin is the widow who has lived in the house since Seamus Carney‘s death. Though there are repeated rumors of his sightings, she is quite sure he died, since his car was found under a tree, where the fastidious auto enthusiast would never have left it.
Politics enters through the all-seeing militant Aunt Pat (the terrific Dearbhla Molloy), whose brother took part in the 1916 uprising and was killed. She is bitter about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, listens on the radio as she refuses to accept hunger strikers as political prisoners. She calls her “a sanctimonious stone-hearted sow.” It will end with the death of Bobby Sands.
Pat‘s younger sister Aunt Maggie (Fionnula Flanagan) is mostly spaced out and in a wheelchair. Occasionally she dredges up the past, this time, 1802, about a great Faerie battle, a mythic conflict. As the current conflict has become mythic.
With some irony, Pat remarks, “Can you imagine walking in here and misreading the situation?” Indeed! (I admit, Pat is my favorite character.) Butterworth is quite skillful at creating that artful mood, when you are not quite sure of what you are seeing.
The Brits indeed were brutal. The neighbor Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney), who wears his IRA sympathies in an emblematic black leather jacket, tells how, “Me and Diarmaid in the Shanty, we‘re in the alley there, the Paras‘ve got the 9mm Browning in my ear. “I‘m gonna scone you, you Irish fuck. Knock your fuckin‘ cunt in.”
They kicked us in the bollocks so hard Finn had an epileptic fit. His Ma went to the Police Station. Waited seven hours. They made her fill out a form. Then they whip out the lighter there and burn the fucking form and drop it in her lap.”
But so were the IRA brutal. Michael Carney says, “I don‘t want watch the door while a Catholic boy gets hammered.” That is about a suspected informer Shane witnessed beaten. “I don‘t want to wear that boy‘s cross round my neck, show it oï¬€ to people like a prize. Thinking I‘m Spartacus when I‘m just a fucking gangster.
I don‘t want to get shot in the back of the head for something I probably never did, and spend ten years face down in a bog in the middle of nowhere while my wife and child sit waiting, hoping, praying for me to come home. If that‘s the road to justice you can fucking bangle it.”
So, this was a story with many villains and so far few heroes. The strands weave a web. An essential one, aside from the brutality, is how the IRA-British conflict destroyed families, with sons and neighbors on conflicting sides.
There‘s also personal heartbreak. Mary senses something between Caitlin and Quinn and has retreated for years to her bedroom.
Uncle Pat (the ineffable Mark Lambert) seeks to defuse tension, with poetry. The most telling is his line about the Ferryman, who takes dead souls to the beyond. He says, “Our friend Virgil has it that there‘s only two types of souls forbidden passage to the beyond. The unburied. And liars. Those that lie to the innocent.”
The challenge is to Quinn who persuaded his brother to join the IRA and is quite convinced he was killed by his comrades. Will he take Muldoon‘s deal to hold his tongue in exchange for providing Caitlin with a house in another town and keeping quiet about their relationship? Though there is no indication it was anything but of the spirit.
Focusing on key plot lines deprives the reader of the rich tapestry of Irish life that Butterworth presents. The acting is superb. The kids are charmers. The difficulty is walking out of the theater and not being able to choose who are the heroes and villains. Yes, the Brits were villains. But the IRA fighters were sometimes not much better. For a British playwright to deal with this still smoldering conflict so without prejudice is quite extraordinary.
This play is a rich, memorable and stunning event.
“The Ferryman.” Written by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W 45th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400. Opened Oct 21, 2018. 10/28/18.