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'The Ferryman' review: Riveting drama about an Irish family during The Troubles

The cast of "The Ferryman," from left, Laura

The cast of "The Ferryman," from left, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O'Reilly, Sean Frank Coffey, and Paddy Considine. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “The Ferryman”

WHERE  Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., Manhattan

INFO Tickets, from $59, at telecharge.com, 212-239-6200 

BOTTOM LINE  Three-plus hours fly by in this riveting drama about an Irish family during The Troubles.   

Dawn is breaking in the farmhouse kitchen as the man and woman, giddy with the Bushmills they’ve been downing all night, blindfold themselves and slow dance to the Rolling Stones. But make no assumptions about this couple — or anyone else — in “The Ferryman,” the riveting Jez Butterworth drama that just opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Set in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the violent political conflicts known as The Troubles, the transfer from London (where it scored several Olivier Awards, including best new play) is a sweeping family epic, vast in scope and characters (21, not counting the adorable baby who is clearly not a doll).

Butterworth found his inspiration close to home. The uncle of his partner, actress Laura Donnelly who has a pivotal role in the play, was among The Disappeared,  people who vanished, presumably at the hands of the Irish Republican Army, leaving families to agonize for years over their fate.

In the play’s brief prologue, the body of one of those missing has been discovered in a bog, so well preserved that his identity is without doubt. IRA henchmen summon a local priest to make his family aware of their “wishes” that details be kept quiet.

That ominous opening weighs on everything that follows, as we meet that family, the Carney clan: Quinn (British film star Paddy Considine, who made his stage debut in the London production), his ailing wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), his sister-in-law Caitlin (Donnelly) and assorted aunts, uncles, offspring and cousins. It is harvest day and there’s much work — and feasting — to be done, the vivid family dynamics brought to life with care by a cast that has no weak links and by director Sam Mendes, a frequent Butterworth collaborator.

This is a family that loves to drink (even the wee ones get a nip) and dance and, mostly, to tell stories of the past, which come frequently, mostly from the older generation. It’s is Uncle Pat’s fondness for Virgil’s description of the boatman who ferries souls to the underworld that explains the title.

But there’s no escaping the present, which ultimately brings this as close to a Greek tragedy as you’re likely to find in a modern work. There is loss and revenge and a relentless demand for justice that comes at a painful cost, which if you consider the history, is exactly on point. More relevant, perhaps, is that after watching this story unfold for more than three hours, I was surprisingly reluctant to let the Carney family go. 

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