One needn’t be a devotee of Bob Dylan to appreciate how the poetry of his song fits an Irish poetic vision of Depression-era America in GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY in its US premier at The Public Theatre. First performed at the London’s Old Vic before its West End transfer last year, GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY plumbs the American soul through both the brooding Irish fatalism of Conor McPherson, award-winning playwright of THE WEIR, and the lyrical introspection of America’s Nobel Prize-winning native son, songwriter Dylan.
Set in a boarding house in 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s actual birthplace was Hibbing), GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, sometimes integrates, sometimes inserts, 20 of Dylan’s songs in a sometimes sprawling, but always intimate, tale of about a dozen disparate characters hanging on to dreams and yearning to be free. McPherson, in a nod to Thornton Wilder's stage manager in OUR TOWN, sets the story with Dr. Walker, the local family doc, who has a little morphine habit, introducing the audience to the beleaguered Nick Laine. Nick, fending off foreclosure, rents out rooms in his ramshackle Victorian house. His dream is to rid himself of the whole, exhausting grind, but he’s imprisoned by the constant care of his demented wife, Elizabeth, and worry for their Black adopted teenage daughter who’s pregnant (she won't say by whom or how) and his son Gene, a Hemingway wannabe and alcoholic. Nick’s boarders are Mrs. Nielsen, a widow waiting for funds from her husband's meager estate, who gives Nick private comfort on the sly, and the Burke family of a belligerent, macho father, a floozy mother, and Elia, their emotionally disturbed adult son with a violent streak. Enter an ex-con and boxer, Joe Scott, and a shady, itinerant preacher, Rev Marlowe. The townspeople who wander through include Mr. Perry, town cobbler and old geezer who wants to wed Marianne, and Kate, a nice girl who has dated Gene.
Nick’s boarding house is sort of a weigh-station. Everybody seems en route someplace else, although they’re uncertain to where. McPherson directs his own book, and with scenic designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Mark Henderson creates nicotine-drenched, impoverished communal dwelling place: absent the universal alcoholism, Nick’s boarding house has a mis-en-scene that recalls Harry Hope’s salon in Eugene O’Neill’s THE ICEMAN COMETH. The Irish McPherson taps into the socialist bent of American Depression-era dramas. Clifford Odets’ notions of social justice rumble through GIRL FOR THE NORTH COUNTRY. McPherson's treatment of gender, class and race couldn’t be more relevant to the test that the great American experiment in democracy now undergoes.
Simon Hale has beautifully arranged and orchestrated Dylan’s songs for a band of four (piano, guitar, violin and bass) that shift spots on stage, joined by cast members who at times will group around an old-fashioned, Big Band microphone or upright piano. McPherson, with movement director Lucy Hind, achieves a fluidity that delicately integrates band, characters and props on a fixed set.
The entire cast is excellent. Of the 20 numbers, the standouts are a mesmerizing "I Want You", one of Dylan’s most popular songs, re-arranged as a woeful duet, where the young Gene, played by a distinctly tenor-voiced Colton Ryan, and Kate lament the painful realization they have no future together. Sydney James Harcourt delivers a knockout performance as the ex-con Joe Scott, starting with an electric, sensual version of “Slow Train”, accompanied by marvelously choreographed female members of the ensemble. The wonderful Mare Winningham as the demented wife Elizabeth brings a haunting clarity to “Like a Rolling Stone” perhaps Dylan’s most famous ballad in the show. Kimber Sprawl as the pregnant Marianne enraptures the audience with a piercing rendition of “Tight Connection to My Heart”.
Ms. Winningham leads the full cast in the moving finale “Forever Young”, rich in both ironic reality and hopeful dream. “May you build a ladder to the stars/ and climb every rung/ May you stay forever young”. In this haunting and beautiful GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, the Irish McPherson and Dylan, the American, illuminate the dream still alive.
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