“It’s kind of a Shakespearean ending, isn’t it?”
Laura Donnelly is discussing the shocking final scene of “The Ferryman” (“People in the front row shouldn’t wear white,” says the lead actress), but the play’s journey to Broadway paints a much more optimistic landscape. After its initial run in London’s West End last year, the production picked up various Olivier awards — including for best new play and best actress, for Donnelly’s performance — and decamped for New York this fall, with much of its original cast in tow. The production officially opened this past week, garnering glowing reviews from New York critics.
“We’re not a big musical and we don’t have some huge film star in it, all of the things that would normally help you launch on Broadway,” Donnelly says. “We’re just relying on a really, really good play, and hopefully that does its job.”
The play was written by Donnelly’s partner Jez Butterworth and is based loosely on her Irish family’s history. When she was a child in Northern Ireland, Donnelly’s uncle vanished at the hands of the Irish Republican Army; the play is set in the summer of 1981 in rural Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the Maze Prison hunger strike.
“The person I’ve been most concerned with their thoughts and feelings of [the play] in my family is my mom,” Donnelly says of the very personal nature of the play. “She’s loved every minute, I think. Even through the difficult first viewings, I think she’s found it quite cathartic. She feels that there’s a light, finally, after so many years, being shone on such a big, international stage on this story of the disappeared that was kept so quiet. And the silence of it was so much to do with what perpetrated the pain of the experience for those families [whose family members vanished]. I think she is just so grateful that these stories are finally being told.”
The play closed on the West End in May ahead of its transfer to Broadway, and the cast has had time to venture their own ways before reuniting in New York. The result of the brief performance hiatus is a “deeper version” of the play.
“I’ve had another baby since I last did it, so that for me, playing a mother and running this household and all that stuff, that has an effect on how I see [the story],” the 36-year-old actress says.
Donnelly acted as a “sounding board” for Caitlin Carney from the character’s genesis; Butterworth wrote the role for her, and there was never any question that she would play the role of Carney, a mother and wife whose husband vanished and has been missing for a decade. Despite her intimate knowledge of the character, Donnelly notes that she’s still constantly discovering new perspectives.
“Sometimes I notice her anger more, sometimes I notice her sorrow more, sometimes it just strikes me suddenly right in the middle of a performance what a sense of loss of her life as a woman she must feel,” she says of her character.
Although the play might not have a marquee name, Donnelly could be headed in that direction. In addition to the accolades from “The Ferryman,” she also was well-received in “The River” — also penned by Butterworth — opposite Hugh Jackman in 2014. She also starred in “Outlander,” although she wasn’t able to appear in the forthcoming season between the play and having a baby. It has afforded her a level of celebrity in the U.S. that was unfamiliar to her in the U.K.; she’s approached in the street daily in New York.
“I actually have to remember just that I am more known here for that,” she says. “I see women, particularly middle-aged women, who will be looking funny at me and I’ll be thinking ‘What’s your problem?’ and then I’m like, ‘Oh, I know exactly what that is.'”
Donnelly has also noticed a difference between the play’s Broadway and West End audiences.
“I genuinely think the audience is better out here — I think the quality of listening is better, even though they’re not understanding necessarily everything in terms of dialect and colloquialism,” she says. “I also think in the U.K. there could be a mixture in response of a slightly detached, ‘Oh, that’s the Irish for you,'” she adds, speculating that the discrepancy in laughable moments can be traced to an element of defensiveness. “The English are implicated a lot in the story, and we don’t have that in America. Instead Americans seem to be connecting with it on a level that relates to politics and civil rights and things like that which this country has been through.”
To capture an audience’s undivided attention for 15 minutes, not to mention for the full three hours and 15 minutes run of the play, is no small feat. The fact that audiences have reacted so positively to “The Ferryman” — without the spectacle of song and dance, without the spectacle of a splashy set with pyrotechnics and other gimmicks — the play, save for a few minutes, takes place on one static set — speaks to the potency of live theater.
“I just want it to continue on this path that it has been on from Day One really, where we have felt like the audience is getting a very unique, very, very special experience in a theater,” says Donnelly of her hopes for the show’s Broadway run. “Just for that to continue, for people to get to enjoy that for as long as it can possibly go on, because I think experiences like that in theater come along very, very rarely, and it makes theater such a gamble. Often what you see doesn’t quite come off; it’s a tricky thing to get really right,” she adds. “But when it does, I think it’s better than anything else.”
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