Using 20 songs that Bob Dylan composed over half a century, playwright Conor McPherson has fashioned a slow, sad, elliptical and occasionally exquisite theater piece set in a run-down boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s hometown, in 1934, seven years before Dylan was born.
The stories in “Girl From The North Country” are not about Dylan. They focus on the desperate family that runs the boarding house, and the many struggling people around them. The show presents a harsh and familiar Dust Bowl Americana. But it does so in a way that recalls how Dylan tapped into Woody Guthrie – in homage and imitation, yes, but rearranged into something that can feel new and compelling. The odd pairing of McPherson’s scenes of hard luck lives with Dylan’s songs of yearning, delivered by a splendid 17-member cast, works better than you might expect, but not as well as you might have hoped.
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Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), debt-ridden, runs the boarding house. His estranged wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) has early-onset dementia; his son Gene (Colton Ryan) is a would-be writer and an unemployed drunk; his adopted black daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl) is pregnant, but she won’t say who the father is.
Robert Joy portrays Dr. Walker, the local physician, who acts as an occasional narrator and, as we eventually discover, is addicted to opium.
There’s also Gene’s ex-girlfriend Kate (Caitlin Houlihan) who announces she’s moving to Boston….and getting engaged to another fellow; Dr. Perry (Tom Nelis), an old shoe mender with a questionable history with young girls, who has his eye on Marianne; the widow Mrs. Nielsen (Jeannette Bayardell), who has her eye on Nick. Nick reciprocates, as eager as she is to get hold of her delayed inheritance, although there is a suggestion of something less mercernary in their exchanges.
Nick: What the hell are you doing wasting your life in here?
Mrs. Neilsen: I gotta waste it somewhere.
In addition, there are several boarders just passing through – a shady Bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu); a failed businessman Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), his bitter wife (Luba Mason), and his grown son Elias with the mind of a child (Todd Almond.)
Inexplicably, Gene acts belligerently towards Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), another new, temporary boarder. Gene tries to intimidate Scott into hitting him. When Joe finally does, Gene is easily floored. Joe, it turns out, is a professional boxer – who had been incarcerated unjustly for three years, only recently released and intent on making a comeback.
McPherson gives all of these characters an arc; a few, we learn, are not as they initially appear, others live to see their dreams curdle. But the playwright, who also directed “Girl From the North Country, seems more interested in presenting a community than in focusing on individual characters. This is most evident, and problematic, in his staging. The are a few lovely if brief choreographed moments, but they mostly serve to highlight how frequently the entire cast seems to be milling about aimlessly on stage, as if at a party.
The saving grace are the songs, aided by Simon Hale’s orchestrations and the performers’ powerhouse singing. There is rarely a direct correlation between McPherson’s plot and Dylan’s song lyrics, but there is often an emotional connection, such as Kimber Sprawl’s rendition of “Tight Connection to My Heart,” Colton Ryan and Caitlin Houlihan’s “I Want You,” and Mare Winningham’s “Forever Young.”
“Sign on the Window,” from New Morning, 1970
“Went to See The Gypsy,” from New Morning, 1970
“Tight Connection to My Love (Has Anyone Seen My Love?), from Empire Burlesque, 1985
“Slow Train,” from Slow Train Coming 1979
“License to Kill,” from Infidels, 1983
“I Want You,” from Blonde on Blonde, 1966
“Like a Rolling Stone,” from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
“Make You Feel My Love,” from Time Out of Mind, 1997
“What Can I Do For You?” from Saved, 1980
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” from the Basement Tapes, 1975
“Jokerman” from Infidels, 1983
“Sweetheart Like You” from Infidels, 1983
“True Love Tendsto Forget,” from Street-Legal, 1978
“Girl from the North Country,” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963
“Hurricane” from Desire, 1976
“Idiot Wind,” from Blood on the Tracks,, 1975
“Duquesne Whistle,” from Tempest, 2012
“Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) from Street-Legal, 1978
“Is Your Love in Vain?” from Street-Legal,1978
“Forever Young,” from Planet Waves, 1974
Girl from the North Country is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, in the East Village, New York, N.Y. 10003) through December 23, 2018.
Girl from the North Country
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.Scenic & Costume Design by Rae Smith. Lighting Design by Mark Henderson. Sound Design by Simon Baker, Orchestrator, Arranger & Music Supervisor Simon Hale
Featuring Todd Almond (Elias Burke), Jeannette Bayardelle (Mrs. Neilson), Stephen Bogardus (Nick Laine), Sydney James Harcourt (Joe Scott), Matthew Frederick Harris (Ensemble), Caitlin Houlahan (Kate Draper), Robert Joy (Dr. Walker), Marc Kudisch (Mr. Burke), Luba Mason (Mrs. Burke), Tom Nelis (Mr. Perry), David Pittu (Reverend Marlowe), Colton Ryan (Gene Laine), John Schiappa (Ensemble), Kimber Sprawl (Marianne Laine), Rachel Stern (Ensemble), Chelsea Lee Williams (Ensemble), and Mare Winningham (Elizabeth Laine). Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell
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