In 1981, Laura Donnelly’s uncle vanished from his town in Northern Ireland, only to be discovered buried in a bog across the border three years later. He’d become one of “the disappeared,” the name given to the people who were abducted and secretly buried by the IRA during the period of violent conflict.
That Donnelly would star in The Ferryman, a play that touches on this moment in history, is no mistake—her family story and the heartbreak left in the wake of Northern Ireland’s Troubles is what inspired playwright Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) to write the piece, now playing at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre following an acclaimed London run. Directed by Sam Mendes and set in a farmhouse in the early 1980s, The Ferryman tells the story of the Carney family’s harvest festivities, an annual celebration that is interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
The Ferryman features most of the London company, including Donnelly, who returns to one of the Carney family, whose beloved Seamus Carney disappeared ten years ago. And while the role won her an Olivier Award, she says it’s her personal connection to the story that continues to make the show so special.
While The Ferryman may be shining a light on a particularly dark moment in history, it’s still, at its heart, a story about a family and relationships. For Donnelly, it’s the play’s universal themes of love, loss, and grief that make her most proud to be a part of the production. “Somebody coming in who knows absolutely nothing about Northern Ireland in 1981 is not going to be in any way lost,” she says. “The political side of it is just the water that the fish swim in, but the fish are what you’re there to see.”