Review: In New Village Arts’ moving ‘Ferryman,’ joy and sadness meet in lavish staging

A scene from New Village Arts' "The Ferryman."
Lucy Zavattero, left, Priya Richard, Dagmar Krause Fields, Juliana Scheding and Lena Palke in New Village Arts’ “The Ferryman.”
(Courtesy of Daren Scott)

Carlsbad company is first to land the U.S. staging rights, outside of Broadway, for this Tony-winning play about the Irish “Troubles”


Before opening Saturday night at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad, Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman” was produced just twice — In London in 2017 and on Broadway in 2019. In both locations, the dark family drama about the Irish “Troubles” was showered with awards, including Best New Play.

Landing such a prestigious premiere is both thrilling and a huge responsibility for New Village, because “The Ferryman” requires a cast of 21 actors with well-coached Northern Irish accents, a live infant, goose and rabbit, cooking onstage, dancing, singing and realistic fight choreography. Plus, the play runs an epic three-and-a-half hours, with two intermissions.

And yet, New Village pulls off the hat trick in a lively and fast-moving production that’s thoughtfully directed by Kristianne Kurner and studded with exceptional performances. On opening night, some of the accents were inconsistent and often the flow of character entrances and exits felt more programmed than natural. But “The Ferryman” is a rip-roarer of a play, both funny and tragic, and it ends with a surprising gut punch heralded by the wail of ghostly banshees.

Antonio TJ Johnson, left, and Joy Yvonne Jones in a scene from New Village Arts' "The Ferryman."
(Courtesy of Daren Scott)

Named for Charon, the mythical character who ferries the souls of the dead to Hades, “The Ferryman” is about four generations of the Carney family in Northern Ireland’s rural County Armagh. It begins in 1981, 10 years after Caitlin Carney and her son, Oisin, have moved in with the family of her brother-in-law, Quinn Carney, following the disappearance of her husband, Seamus.

During the Troubles, informants were often “vanished” by the Irish Republican Army, and in the first minutes of the play the audience learns that Seamus’s well-preserved body has been found in a bog, a bullet still lodged in the back of his head. The town’s IRA leaders want the Quinn family to keep silent about the murder, or more will die.

But Seamus isn’t the only character in the play who has disappeared. Most of the adults — impacted by loss, trauma, secrets and fear — have done their own vanishing acts. Quinn, an ex-IRA soldier, is hiding out in farm country; the widowed Caitlin has retreated behind a veil of stoic sadness; Quinn’s jealous wife, Mary, has sunk into hypochondria; the elderly Aunt Maggie Faraway drifts off for long stretches into the fog of memory; the town priest Father Horrigan has abandoned his vows; and the solitary and unwelcome Englishman Tom Kettle is lost in plain sight.

A scene from New Village Arts' production of "The Ferryman."
(Courtesy of Daren Scott)

Butterworth leavens his play’s darkness with levity, so there are upbeat Irish dance scenes, songs, an Irish fairy tale and — as promised — a honking goose, a black bunny and gorgeous baby to charm the audience. But the tense third act builds like a firecracker with a fast-burning fuse. It’s a terrific play and fun to watch unfold.

Among the production’s many standout performers are Grace Delaney as the militant Aunt Pat; Dagmar Krause Fields as the ethereal Aunt Maggie Faraway; Max Macke as the menacing IRA enforcer Muldoon; Layth Haddad as the fierce and boastful Carney cousin Sean Corcoran; Daren Scott as the withered and compromised Father Horrigan; and Antonio TJ Johnson as the ever-ebullient Uncle Patrick. And anchoring the play with understated but realistic performances are Thomas Edward Daugherty and Joy Yvonne Jones as in-laws Quinn and Caitlin, who are not-so-secretly in love.

Doug Cumming’s elaborately detailed Irish cottage set has a working stove and sink and Jojo Siu’s costumes, Annelise Salazar’s lighing and Harper Justus’s sound help create the authentic world of the play. The show’s printed program comes with a handy family tree diagram and a brief written history of the Troubles, which from 1969 to 1998 tore families apart, killed thousands and left even more lives — like those of the Carneys —irreparably shattered.

‘The Ferryman’

When: 2 p.m. Wednesdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through March 5

Where: New Village Arts, 2787 State St., Carlsbad

Tickets: $30-$50

Phone: (760) 433-3245