Northern Island, 1981. “The Troubles”—the national conflict that pitted mostly-Protestant loyalists against mostly-Catholic Irish radicals—is at its height. Ten Republican prisoners (seven from the Irish Republican Party and three from the Irish National Liberation Army) are about to die from starvation in what will become known as the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. The play opens with revelations about a former IRA member, Seamus Carney, who went missing nearly 10 years ago. And then we cut to the Carney farmhouse.
It is just before dawn on Harvest Day, the family’s annual celebration and feast. Caitlin Carney, formerly played by the Irish star Laura Donnelly (also seen on Starz’s “Outlander”), now by Holley Fain (“Harvey,” “Gossip Girl”) leans back in a kitchen chair, her legs stretched out before her, a glass of whiskey in her hand. She is drinking, flirting, and drunkenly cheating at Connect 4 with a man who appears to be her husband. Caitlin and the man, Quinn Carney, played by Paddy Considine, listen to records, argue about the merits of various pop singers (Caitlin judges less on musical talents than on who has the best bum), and the two dance blindfolded around the room. Caitlin is so at ease, so present, that you can’t take your eyes off of her. But the moment one of the children wakes up, and the blinds are opened, and the daylight shines through, she straightens up and goes back to being a single mother, who, it turns out, is Seamus’s widow, Quinn’s sister-in-law.
The story detail of an IRA member gone missing happens to come from Laura Donnelly’s own family history. Her uncle, Eugene Simons, was one of “the Disappeared,” people who were secretly murdered by the IRA and then given made-up “sightings,” to make it seem as if they were still alive. After she and her playwright husband, Jez Butterworth, watched the BBC documentary “The Disappeared” by Alison Millar, in which Donnelly’s uncle appeared, Butterworth was inspired to write a play about it. But while the political period, one that Donnelly came of age in, was the inspiration for the story, this is not a story about politics. The play is about family, a big one (there’s Quinn Carney, his wife, their seven children—including a real live, onstage baby—two great aunts, a great uncle, Caitlin, and her son all living under one roof). It’s a play about loss and trauma, miscommunication and missed chances. It’s also about naive youth, stubborn old age, and the more reasonable midlifers who feel responsible for the extremes on either side of them.
That first scene with Caitlin and Quinn changes the way we watch everything that comes after. And it is the character convincingly vacillating between two selves, a woman who quietly gets on with things and gets things done, meanwhile experiencing a host of feelings beneath her brave facade, that is so impressive. (Also impressive: That during the entire London run Donnelly was pregnant with her and Butterworth’s baby, which also means that during this New York run they have a small child at home.)
So while it’s true that “The Ferryman” includes many carefully choreographed moving parts such as a live goose, a rabbit, a fire, a gunshot, and Irish step dancing—not in that order—it’s Caitlin you’ll be remembering.
“The Ferryman” is on now at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 W. 45th St.) through July 7, 2019.