NEW YORK — As a portrait of a vengeance-obsessed culture drowning in its own spilled blood, “The Ferryman” is a searing social document. As a sprawling human drama, poised on the precipice of a violence that you know is waiting for its beguilingly drawn and assayed characters, it is a riveting work of art.
It sprawls, too, in the most exhilarating sense of the term. Jez Butterworth’s revenge tragedy, which marked its official opening Sunday night at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, teems with people and the events that divide and imperil them. Twenty-two characters — a veritable population explosion for a Broadway play — pass in and out of the Carneys’ rustic County Armagh farmhouse in the momentous summer of 1981, when the Troubles between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants are at full throttle, and the extended family is preparing to harvest 50 acres of wheat and barley.
But as “The Ferryman” reveals, no bucolic corner of the countryside is spared the turmoil. Off in Belfast, imprisoned members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army are dying, one by one, in a hunger strike, led by the already-martyred Bobby Sands. And leaders of the IRA, a Catholic paramilitary organization seeking to end Protestant Britain’s hold on Northern Ireland, are intent on disturbing the peace of the farm’s Catholic owner, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), after the body of his long-dead, brutally murdered brother is discovered in a bog.
Out of the darkness of these ugly times, and the tenderer moments conjured in a family of seven children, Butterworth weaves an enthralling tapestry of melodrama, wryness and suspense. Three generations of Carneys fill the house, and with them, figures who seem to wander in from all corners of Ireland’s grand playwriting tradition, from John Millington Synge to Brian Friel. (Butterworth, by the way, is English.) One embittered aunt (Dearbhla Molloy) who clings to dreams of IRA glory; another (Fionnula Flanagan) who’s lost in reveries of Irish mythology; a cousin (Tom Glynn-Carney), indulging his terrorist sympathies; a neighbor (Justin Edwards) of English birth and damaged mind; a wife (Genevieve O’Reilly) unable to cope with the intensity of emotion under her roof and a sister-in-law (Laura Donnelly) who lives in an agitated state suspended between grief and longing.
Even the Carney kids — JJ, Michael, Shena, Nunu, Mercy, Honor, and baby Bobby — are portrayed in what might be the liveliest assortment since the von Trapp children in “The Sound of Music.” Although the music (by Nick Powell and various recording artists) is inevitably sparser in “The Ferryman,” it’s always inserted in inspired ways here by director Sam Mendes, and the dancing at the harvest dinner, as the whiskey gets passed around, is downright wonderful.
You’d think the magnitude of exposition required to flesh out 22 lives might trip up the dramatist or bog down the narrative. But the marvelous achievement here is that “The Ferryman” becomes ever more compelling, the more that swatches of patchwork are laid in place. The memory of its ominous opening scene, the only one that doesn’t occur in the warmly rendered farm kitchen and living room of Rob Howell’s set, lingers all through the play’s three acts. With each entrance of the weak-willed priest (Charles Dale), who serves as the reluctant water-carrier for the local IRA leader (Stuart Graham), grows the feeling of foreboding. Rather than the word of God, Father Horrigan brings to the Carneys the intimation of Chaos.
Butterworth and Mendes have masterminded “The Ferryman” for maximum wallop, and the actors, to a person, are brilliant executors. Holding up the crucial sides of the drama’s leading emotional triangle, Considine, O’Reilly and Donnelly each contribute superb turns. You’ll recognize Considine from his varied movie work, particularly as one of the stars of “In America,” a 2002 film about an Irish family in New York; astonishingly, this is his first stage performance, and it’s a magnetic debut. O’Reilly imbues the role of Quinn’s wife, Mary, with a touching, almost translucent radiance. Donnelly’s fire, meanwhile, adds a positively knockout appeal to Caitlin, wife to Quinn’s long-missing brother Seamus, and a captivating if forbidden soul mate for the head of the Carney household.
Who else merits mention? Well, everyone, but space perforce places limits on encomiums. In short, Molloy as the firebrand aunt and Flanagan as her mystical sister are both magical. Edwards’s hulking, mentally diminished Tom Kettle is a persuasive inheritor of the mantle of Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men”; wait for his remarkable wooing scene. Fra Free, playing Quinn and Mary’s second-eldest son, Michael, proves to be an ideal sparring partner for the restless, boasting cousin, played by a sterling, tightly wound Glynn-Carney.
The play runs more than three hours. Don’t let that deter you. The evening is a meticulous unfolding of plot and character by the author of “Jerusalem,” the 2011 drama that won Mark Rylance a Tony, and that builds to one of the most ferociously rewarding climaxes of my playgoing experience. That sensation, of a tension released by consummate storytelling, is what a theater lover lives for.
The Ferryman, by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Sam Mendes. Sets and costumes, Rob Howell; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound and music, Nick Powell; choreography, Scarlett Mackmin. With Mark Lambert, Rob Malone, Niall Wright, Conor MacNeill. About 3 hours 15 minutes. $59-$175. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.