The first surprise is that Girl From the North Country, which marries the playwriting of Conor McPherson and music and lyrics of Bob Dylan, doesn’t major on Dylan’s raw folkiness. You’d think it might. The play, opening Monday night at New York’s Public Theater, is set in the threadbare, Depression-era year of 1934 in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, full of characters variously luckless, desperate, loving, scamming, and scrabbling.
The marriage of McPherson’s serrated storytelling—where human tragedy and absurdity scythe away alongside each other, producing as many grimaces as laughs—and Dylan’s sharp songwriting would seem like a perfect fit.
But the 20 Dylan songs here impressively span from 1963 (“Girl From the North Country” itself) to 2012 (“Duquesne Whistle”), many rearranged with elements of soul, gospel, and big band, as well as staying true to what Dylan purists would want. The play combines both music and speech; it is not a musical or jukebox musical, or musical with words. Think of it more as a play furnished with Dylan jewels glinting off the prisms of the action.
My theater pal, a Bob Dylan aficionado, noted that Dylan liked and made his music to be malleable enough to be recast into various genres.
The problem for him would only be a problem to Dylan fans like him, he said: Some of the songs seemed to be selected with the scantest connection to the story. They were just inserted, and when they popped up at a moment of high tragedy or high drama, it seemed opportunistic or just bizarre.
The songs didn’t add anything to the story. They weren’t originally written with such a moment or emotion in mind.
“Hurricane” (1976), for example, was strange to include as it’s a biographical song about Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, who boxed long after the play took place (he was born in 1937, three years after it is set).
These songs sounded good for sure but seemed like they were being used as convenient ingredients, rather than as vital ones. Still, my pal said, that was really a personal cavil and it would only matter if your knowledge of the Dylan back catalogue was detailed enough for it to register as odd.
But really, when music is as beautifully played and sung as “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), “Slow Train” (1979), “Sweetheart Like You” (1983), and a final, rousing “Forever Young” (1974), then you forgive it because these songs are so perfectly honeyed or raw.
The problem with Dylan’s music in the play isn’t in what it says or where it says it, but its place in the structure of the whole. The quality of the characters and actors was such that this critic wanted more of their chewing on McPherson’s drama. There are worse problems for a production to have: With Girl From the North Country, you are slightly spoiled for accomplishments.
There is its smooth staging and Rae Smith’s atmospheric design, Simon Hale’s gorgeous orchestration, and the actors’ wonderful singing and playing of instruments, which they do with apparent ease as they navigate through McPherson’s dense script and complex direction. Just visually, Girl From the North Country is a clever, seductive treat.
Music director Marco Paguia and the band sit partially concealed on the stage, and sometimes in the thick of the musical action as screens of open country, chairs and tables slide noiselessly on and off the stage—at different times opening it up for dancing, then boxing it in for tension. Mark Henderson’s lighting takes us through every shade of day and night.
Stephen Bogardus plays Nick Laine, the guesthouse owner, dutiful and stoic and also cheating on his wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), who is mentally ill.
Winningham is the flinty, transfixing heart of the production; she is both vulnerable, lost to another world, a nervy presence floating and then frozen in the aspics of illness and grief, and also she sees certain things piercingly clearly when the moments are right—such as when delivering the perfect condemnatory zinger to the slippery Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu).
Just who is this Reverend, and who is Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), who blow into the guesthouse one stormy night? The latter is keen to help Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), the Laines’ black adopted daughter. Gene, the Laines’ son (Colton Ryan), is a mixture of feckless, racist, aggressive, and scared.
Like the play, Gene is an elusive mix of emotions. Songs of celebration and rallying community are sung, and then back we go into the murkiness of blackmail, racism, violence, mental illness, marital strife, financial hardship, and dysfunction.
Robert Joy plays the town doctor (obviously quite busy in this town) and is also our narrator, keeping his most eagle eye on Nick, and so he should. Bogardus plays him ambiguously as both anchor and agitator. Could he really leave Elizabeth for Mrs. Neilsen (a strong and tender performance by Jeannette Bayardelle)?
McPherson doesn’t craft a traditional love triangle here but something more heartbreaking and strange, especially when the story follows Nick and Elizabeth’s marriage to its ultimately dark destination, and their and their son’s lives far beyond the temporal bounds of the play.
Meanwhile, the Reverend’s malignancy comes to the fore in his treatment of the desperate Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), addict-in-waiting Mrs. Burke (Luba Mason), and their son Elias (Todd Almond). Just wait for Mason’s drumming.
Your feelings towards Girl From the North Country will not just come down to your knowledge and liking of Dylan. The quality of playwriting and characterization is so rich, it feels as if the development of those characters, and their dramatic potential, are abbreviated by the intrusion of Dylan’s music.
As beautifully sung, staged, and played as his music is, Bob Dylan can feel a little in the way in Girl From the North Country. The songs don’t add to what we see in front of us; they luxuriantly, resonantly echo what we know rather than deepen McPherson’s troubled characters. This production is beautiful in so many ways, but this critic ultimately wanted less of a musical master and more of the playwright’s vision.
Girl From the North Country is at the Newman Theater, Public Theater, New York City, until Dec. 23. Book here.