Antonio TJ Johnson and Joy Yvonne Jones in "The Ferryman." Photo by Daren Scott
The Irish wouldn’t appreciate the analogy, but Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman” is a play of Shakespearean scope. You’ve got three and a half hours of drama. You’ve got a huge cast, including children and live animals. You’ve got a complex and psychologically rich interweaving of family members, allies and enemies. You’ve got the backdrop of a major conflict – in this case not a battlefield war but “The Troubles.” You’ve got song on stage, madness on stage and violence on stage.
I rest my case.
That New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad is the first company outside of London or New York to produce “The Ferryman” is not only a coup for the NVA, but a triumph of ambitiousness. What a way to officially open its renamed Conrad Prebys Theatre at the transformed Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center.
“The Ferryman’s” been open since the end of January and it’s virtually sold out through the end of its run on March 5. It took me awhile to get a ticket, but I have to say it was worth it, and the three-plus-hour, two-intermission sitting didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as did driving home in a pouring rainstorm. Looking back, the weather was compatible with the overriding mood of the story of the Carney family at harvest time in Rural County Armagh in 1981.
Not that everything is dour, in spite of the tragic sacrifice of the Irish Republican hunger strikers very much palpable in the atmosphere. Harvest time is above all a time to celebrate and rejoice in being together, and as the massive Carney clan convenes at the start of the play there is laughter and playfulness amid the tension.
“The Ferryman” traffics in parallel narratives: the personal travails of the family and the political upheaval in their midst.
Head of the family Quinn Carney (Thomas Edward Daugherty, showing no signs of rust after having been away from his craft for 20 years) embodies both. He has a martyr of a spouse (Mary, portrayed by Kym Pappas) and a sister-in-law (Caitlin, played by Joy Yvonne Jones) who makes his life happy again. On the other hand, he is soon threatened by an IRA thug (Max Macke) to keep silent about the murder of Caitlin’s husband – Quinn’s brother – Seamus. If Quinn pursues justice for his brother, his feelings for Caitlin will be revealed. There’s even a family priest (Daren Scott) employed as a reluctant go-between.
The IRA has also infiltrated one of the family’s cousins, Shane Corcoran (Layth Haddad), who is among the harvest participants and revelers at the Carney farm. His presence proves volatile, explosive.
Under the same roof is Quinn’s Aunt Patricia (Grace Delaney) militantly swearing ruin to Margaret Thatcher and her foot soldiers, and a hapless Englishman named Tom Kettle (Dallas McLaughlin) who harbors a secret that will lead to disappointment and disaster.
All this plus delusional Aunt Maggie (Dagmar Krause Fields) whose grasp of reality is a slippery one; Uncle Patrick (Antonio TJ Johnson), ever-quoting mythology and the de facto presider over family festivities; Carney sons James Joseph (Nick Daugherty), Michael (Ben McLaren) and baby Bobby (portrayed onstage by a real, honest-to-goodness baby); Carney daughters Shena (Juliana Scheding), Nunu (Priya Richard), Mercy (Lucy Zavatterro) and Honor (Lena Palke); and … I’ve got to stop. My typing fingers are tired.
There are so many layers to “The Ferryman” story – too many to go over here – that it requires a family tree diagram and a recap of Irish rebellion history, both available in the handout program. What keeps the production from sinking under the weight of its own density are the script’s recurring mysteries, like everything else in this show depicted with care under the great direction of Kristianne Kurner; moments of joyous Irish dancing that are frustrating to watch because you’d rather be down on the stage with the actors; and of course some outstanding performances.
Besides Thomas Edward Daugherty’s stalwart and sensitive turn as Quinn, Johnson brings bigger-than-life presence to Uncle Patrick and Delaney unwavering intensity to Aunt Patricia. Among the young actors, Haddad shines as Shawn Corcoran, unwitting pawn of the manipulating Muldoon.
Doug Cumming’s scenic design, of the various cozy rooms, corners and stairwells of the Carney farmhouse, instill the new NVA theater with a touch of Ireland. Even when things are dark and dangerous inside the Carney home, it invites the viewer into a world where little things like a toast or a family meal or hearing “Erin go Bragh” in song can melt the heart.
Could as much as 20 minutes have come out of this show? Certainly. “The Ferryman” is a veritable saga. It’s hard to say whether it’s more estimable as a family or political drama, for each in its way is worthy of attention. It leaves us with much to consider and to reflect upon, including how happiness can become pain and how friends can become foes.
It was Charon who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx on a journey for hoped-for immortality. This “Ferryman” transports us on a different kind of journey but one as equally concerned with the living and the dead.
“The Ferryman” runs through March 5 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.