'Girl From the North Country': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Kimber Sprawl and Sydney James Harcourt in 'Girl From the North Country'
Ravishing sorrow.
12/23/2018

Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson weaves songs from across the vast catalog of Bob Dylan into a poetic drama set in Minnesota during the Great Depression.

Conor McPherson does something unique and acutely affecting in Girl From the North Country, drawing a mythical line that connects the haunted souls of the Irish playwright's own work with the lost lovers and dreamers of Bob Dylan's songs and the Dust Bowl folk balladry of Dylan's idol, Woody Guthrie. Forget every knee-jerk resistance you've ever felt toward the idea of a jukebox musical, this is a completely different animal. Rather than artificially shoehorning songs into a purpose-built narrative, McPherson artfully builds a novelistic tapestry of archetypal figures, the poor and disenfranchised of an America suspended in time, using Dylan's pungently expressive lyrics and roots melodies to echo and amplify its themes of melancholy, yearning, hope and despair.

Directed by McPherson with a fluidity that makes each transition between songs, and from dramatic scenes to musical numbers, mesmerizingly seamless, the production premiered at London's Old Vic in summer 2017 before transferring to a hit run in the West End. It arrives in New York at the Public Theater with an entirely new American cast of superb actor-singers, and serves as a revivifying antidote to the rehashed movies and workmanlike bio-assemblies that have lately dominated the new musical field. Though calling this emotionally penetrating tone poem a musical seems reductive.

Dylan's management approached McPherson about creating a theatrical project around the veteran troubadour's songbook, giving the playwright a free hand as to form and content. Perhaps being careful to avoid the thudding literal-mindedness of dance innovator Twyla Tharp's stinging 2006 Broadway flop, The Times They Are A-Changin,which welded Dylan's songs onto a trivializing circus melodrama, McPherson uses the tunes almost subliminally to evoke time, place and character. He reaches back across the decades to the Great Depression to tap our collective historical memory while finding resonance in the anger and heartache of broken American dreams that endure today.

There are distinct shades of Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck and Eugene O'Neill in the story, which unfolds in Dylan's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota around Thanksgiving 1934 — seven years before the singer-songwriter was born and a quarter-century before he took the first steps in his music career. Nonetheless, the human experience portrayed here seems very much the bedrock of the personal, political, social and spiritual concerns that have informed Dylan's writing.

Periodically narrated by local medic Dr. Walker (Robert Joy), who has mostly kicked the habit of self-medicating his loneliness with morphine, the show establishes from the get-go its graceful melding of traditional drama with presentational-style performance. The songs, often sung into period radio mics, with the actors doubling on percussion, give soaring inner voice to regrets and stubborn longings too submerged in the bleak reality of these people to be expressed in mere spoken word. McPherson lifts 20 tracks spanning almost 50 years, from 1963's title song through 2012's "Duquesne Whistle," the latter transforming a voiceless misfit into a swinging rockabilly showman, celebrating his deliverance from mortal suffering.

The setting is a boarding house, which designer Rae Smith renders in a few pieces of worn furniture and flyaway walls that open up at intervals to reveal the icy landscape of the Great Lakes State beyond. This is all that remains of an estate inherited, mismanaged and remortgaged to the brink of foreclosure by Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), whose wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) suffers from early-onset dementia yet seems to miss nothing. Certainly she's aware of Nick's affair with one of their lodgers, the widowed Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle).

Nick and Elizabeth's son Gene (Colton Ryan) is an aspiring writer already losing himself in alcoholism and rage, driving away his childhood sweetheart Kate (Caitlin Houlahan); and Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), the African-American daughter they adopted after she was abandoned there by guests as a baby, is now 19 and pregnant, refusing to name the father. Envisioning only hardship ahead for a black single mother, Nick attempts to hitch Marianne to Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), a shoe mender of questionable character, well into middle-age and looking to replace the wife who died 12 years earlier. Nick's own hopes for financial rescue are pinned to the money Mrs. Neilsen supposedly will come into once it clears probate.

Their boarders include the so-called Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu), a shady Bible salesman who arrives late on a stormy night with Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), a black prizefighter allegedly just released from prison on an overturned conviction. There's also the once-wealthy blowhard Mr. Burke (Mark Kudisch), his jaded wife Laura (Luba Mason) and their lanky adult son Elias (Todd Almond), who has the mental age of a child and a strength he can't control. The family lost everything and left their home up north under cloudy circumstances.

Even before Mr. Burke's anti-FDR rant, it's impossible to miss the roots of today's MAGA-spouting diehards: "You do know what it is we really need, dontcha? In the White House? A strong man… Long as the head man is strong I don't care two sausages if he's any good. Cause what we need is energy… Energy — not morals! Just someone doin' something — even if it's the wrong thing."

These people and their grim situations are carved out of a familiar Americana mold, and yet under McPherson's probing direction, the actors transcend melodramatic cliché, endowing their characters with battered humanity, even at their most opportunistic. This is especially the case when they release their feelings in song.

There's a reason Dylan remains the only singer-songwriter awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hearing his lyrics given such distinctive vocal interpretations, coupled with the gorgeous, period-styled orchestrations of Simon Hale for a five-piece band on piano and strings, elevates the songs' raw emotional power. At times the musical choices have only a passing connection to the narrative, but together with subtle underscoring in the dramatic scenes, they lend cohesion and depth to this mood piece at every step.

Among the early highlights are Bayardelle pouring wistful romance into "Went to See the Gypsy"; the plaintive questioning of Sprawl's Marianne, wondering "Has anyone seen my love?" on "Tight Connection to My Heart"; and the desire-turned-to-defeat of Ryan and Houlahan on "I Want You," slowed down to a desolate lament after Gene and Kate say their farewells.

The glorious harmonies of the ensemble, sometimes breaking into separate groups of men and women, or coming in altogether like a community singalong, add to the sorrowful majesty of this portrait of a people stranded on the prairies, literally and figuratively. That elegiac quality translates also into the choreography of movement director Lucy Hind, which references the period with soulful feeling.

There's stirring liberation in Elizabeth's emergence from hazy inertia when Winningham sidles into "Like a Rolling Stone," giving impassioned voice to an entire gallery of people in pained limbo as lighting magician Mark Henderson splashes mirror ball reflections over the company and audience like fairy dust. And as the other women come in on the chorus, they segue into a couple verses from "Make You Feel My Love," deftly laying the foundations for a scene in which a tentative connection between Joe and the wary Marianne is established. If McPherson doesn't tread softly with the biblical significance of those names, their story is no less moving for it.

The prayer-like sentiments of "What Can I Do for You?" from Dylan's born-again years, open the second act on a note of gospel-inflected hope, exemplified by the ecstatic interlude of Elias' harmonica solo. But the elusiveness of true escape descends again as the music moves into "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and "Jokerman," sung by the women with both joy and bitter clarity. That duality resonates even stronger when the fabulous Mason lets loose her big gutsy voice while accompanying herself on drums in "Sweetheart Like You," which flows into Mrs. Neilsen's heartbreaking "True Love Tends to Forget," sung with powerhouse force by Bayardelle.

The standout vocal performances are too many to name, but Harcourt's double-whammy — starting with the outlaw injustice of "Hurricane" and bleeding into "Idiot Wind," the latter an exquisite duet with Sprawl's Marianne — is thrilling. The chemistry between the two actors is so palpable it fills you with hope that at least that one narrative strand will lead into the light.

That's not generally the case of course, and tragedy does inevitably arrive. Though even as Elizabeth delivers a devastating summation of love and marriage making way for the slow death of affection, and then for hatred, madness and solitude — as if she's recounting someone else's story — there's beautiful poignancy in her words. Whether Elizabeth appears child-like and helpless or merciless in the blunt accuracy of her assessments, Winningham seems incapable of a false moment. And when she leads the company in "Forever Young," it's both a hymn and a wrenching snapshot of the American underclass, frozen in amber.

Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Stephen Bogardus, Sydney James Harcourt, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, Mare Winningham

Playwright-director: Conor McPherson
Music and lyrics: Bob Dylan
Set and costume designer: Rae Smith
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Simon Baker
Orchestrations, arrangements and music supervision: Simon Hale
Movement director: Lucy Hind
Music director: Marco Paguia
Presented by The Public Theater