For Star Laura Donnelly, Broadway's 'The Ferryman' Tells A Deeply Personal Tragedy

The "Outlander" actress says her uncle's 1981 disappearance at the IRA’s hands inspired the heartbreaking new drama.

As the star of “The Ferryman,” Laura Donnelly delivers one of the Broadway season’s most buzzed-about performances eight times a week. There on stage, she is also personally exploring her own family history.

The Sam Mendes-directed show, now at New York’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, began as a series of discussions between Donnelly and her partner, playwright Jez Butterworth. The couple had recently viewed a documentary that delved into the 1981 disappearance of Donnelly’s uncle Eugene Simons at the hands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict known as the “Troubles.”

Butterworth saw parallels between the modern political climate in Europe and America and the Troubles, a 30-year clash between people in Northern Ireland who felt the nation should remain in the U.K. and those who favored re-unification with the Irish Republic. Using Donnelly’s family experience as a dramatic pillar, he began work on “The Ferryman,” which opened on Broadway to rave reviews in October following a successful London run.

Donnelly portrays Caitlin Carney, a single mother in Northern Ireland who is taken in by her brother-in-law Quinn (Paddy Considine) and his family after her husband, Seamus, disappears on New Year’s Day in 1972. Reports of Seamus resurfacing throughout the countryside plague Caitlyn and her 14-year-son, Oisin (Rob Malone), while the whole Carney family struggles to stay afloat amid their homeland’s political and social turmoil. Mendes’ staging, which incorporates live animals, infants, step dancing and acts of grisly violence, is alone worth the ticket price. 

“There are lessons to be learned about how people become radicalized and what happens when people feel oppressed and don’t feel like they have a voice or power within their community,” said Donnelly, who nabbed an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony) for her performance. “That’s never stopped being relevant.”

Best known to Americans for her role as Jenny in the Starz series “Outlander,” Donnelly spoke to HuffPost about her personal connection to her “Ferryman” role, working with Butterworth and why she feels the play resonates with U.S. audiences.

“The Ferryman” is set during the Troubles, a period in Northern Irish history. Was there ever a concern that the show wouldn’t resonate with audiences, particularly in America, because of that?

It’s a very, very complicated matter. But the most important part of our play is that it’s not a story about politics. It’s a story about humanity, love, loss, connection and misconnection. There’s so much that can be learnt from it in today’s climate. So to come knowing absolutely nothing about the politics of the time won’t hinder your experience.

"It’s a story about humanity, love, loss, connection and misconnection," Laura Donnelly (far left) said of "The Ferryma
"It’s a story about humanity, love, loss, connection and misconnection," Laura Donnelly (far left) said of "The Ferryman," now playing in New York. 

The play is set in 1981, one year before you were born. What did the process of researching your family’s history entail?

It was just a case of approaching the character the way I would any other character, just trying to make it my own. I chatted with my mother and I did a little bit of research among other family members. I got in touch with a few people who were most directly affected by what had happened.

One of the issues that the play shines a light on is the natural silence that pervades subjects like this in the North of Ireland. That was certainly the case in my family. Growing up, I’d known vaguely what had happened to my uncle, but I’d never sat down with my mom and really discussed it in detail, discussed what it was like for her on an emotional level. So this is the first time I’ve been able to do that.

How did your family react to seeing “The Ferryman” for the first time?

The person I was most concerned about seeing it, obviously, was my mum, because it was her story I took it from. But she absolutely loved it. She loves that there’s finally a voice being given to this story that several families had to live through.

What was it like collaborating with your partner, Jez Butterworth,  professionally?

We worked together before on his play “The River” ― that’s where we met. But in terms of me being present from the beginning of his creative process, this is the first time I’ve done anything like that. For both of us, the art we create … is such a huge part of our lives. It was amazing to witness how he works and shapes these things, but I don’t think any of it came as a surprise. I always knew how good he was.

Director Sam Mendes’ staging of "The Ferryman" incorporates live animals, infants, step dancing and acts of grisly viol
Director Sam Mendes’ staging of "The Ferryman" incorporates live animals, infants, step dancing and acts of grisly violence.

Has the response to the show in New York been different from that of London audiences?

While our U.K. audiences were amazing, I could get the sense of them wanting to hold it at arm’s length. Whereas here I don’t feel that at all. In fact, people tell me it’s more similar to the American story because you’re talking about civil rights, and I think people can relate to that more directly here.  

What challenges you most about the show at this point? 

The stamina. It requires a lot of physical energy and a huge amount of emotional energy. On our two-show days, I have to go through seven hours of that, and it’s a daunting task. At the same time, it’s a wonderful challenge to have because it’s fulfilling. I finish every single evening feeling like there’s nothing more I could’ve done. I’ve left everything on the stage that I possibly could.