Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan
At The Public Theater at Astor Place
BS rating: A+
Show-Score rating: 95
A thing of beauty wrapped in sadness – that’s the musical “Girl from the North Country” written and directed by Conor McPherson with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan currently at the Public Theater. It is that rarest of productions where everything comes together to create a work of art that is engaging, insightful, and chillingly beautiful.
Mr. McPherson has created a moving portrait of life in the heart of America at the height of the Great Depression. Set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (Mr. Dylan’s hometown) in 1934, the play introduces us to thirteen characters, each struggling to make a life for themselves in the face of financial disaster and personal hardships.
Nick Lane, the proprietor of the boarding house, is facing mortgage foreclosure, and his wife, Elizabeth, is losing her mind as she ages. His son, Gene, is a would-be, but never published, writer who, like so many classic writers, buries his failures in “the bottle.” The Lanes have an adopted daughter named Marrianne, a black child that was left in a suitcase at the boarding house 20 years ago. In the face of losing his business, Nick tries to interest Marrianne in a local merchant who is three times her age.
Their current guests include Mr. and Mrs. Burke and their grown son, Elias, who suffers from autism nine years before that disability was named and recognized as a separate and complex condition. Mrs. Neilsen, recently widowed, is anxiously waiting for $3,000 once probate on her late husband’s will is settled. During her extended stay in Duluth, she and Mr. Lane have developed an illicit affair, allowing them to dream of a better life when her money comes through, if it comes through.
Joe Scott is an African-American former boxer who claims to have been wrongly incarcerated based on prejudicial testimony regarding a crime he did not commit. Reverend Marlowe travels the Mid-West hawking bibles and occasionally falling from grace with drink and bad deeds. The local physician is Dr. Walker with a history of prescribing himself the types of medication that make him feel good, at least for a while.
The play spans a few months as the challenges of the times close in on these struggling individuals. It is surprising that an Irish playwright has so insightfully captured these classic victims of this dark period in American history, although the Irish are no strangers to a history of financial ruin. Each character is so well fleshed out that by the end of the play you feel like you know these people and can empathize with their dilemmas.
What is even more amazing is the way McPherson has integrated the music of Bob Dylan into the stories of these troubled people. If you entered the theatre not knowing that the music and lyrics were by one of America’s most celebrated folk singers, you would feel like you had found a new composer who could create lovely melodies with lyrics that expand the meaning of the play and comfortably fit the characters singing those songs. The music has been arranged and orchestrated by Simon Hale in a variety of styles to match the mood of the moment. If you are someone who is not a Dylan fan, or at least not a fan of the way our folk legend sings his music, fear not; each song is beautifully sung, frequently backed-up by ensembles silhouetted at the rear of the stage.
For example, when the struggling young writer, Gene, discovers his girlfriend has accepted the marriage proposal of a more stable suitor, he sings “I Want You So Bad,” an ode to a rejected lover.
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you
I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you
The boy’s father, Nick, about to lose his home and income, torn between a mentally deranged wife and a dream of better life with a woman who can bail him out, sings “What Can I Do for You?”
Soon as a man is born, you know the sparks begin to fly
He gets wise in his own eyes and he’s made to believe a lie
Who would deliver him from the death he’s bound to die?
Well, You’ve done it all and there’s no more anyone can pretend to do
What can I do for You?
I am usually leery of plays directed by their author. Most productions benefit from the “new eyes” of an independent director. But Mr. McPherson frequently directs his plays (as well movies) to much acclaim. This production has a unity and ethos in which every element seems to come together to paint a vivid picture of these people and their trials. The style fluctuates between realistic scenes and musical numbers that either grow out of, or comment upon, the action presented as if they were in a country-music concert hall. A narrator fills in details. Actors move from playing their characters to becoming backup ensemble singers seamlessly.
Rae Smith’s sets and costumes have just enough detail to suggest who and where we are while maintaining a certain sense of universality. A false proscenium and foot lights suggests we are seeing some type of staged performance, perhaps a musical review. The scenery is appropriately suggestive of small-town America in the ‘30s. The lighting by Mark Henderson is atmospheric. Movement director Lucy Hind keeps the limited choreography simple and organic for small town Minnesotans in the middle of the 20th century. Together, these elements create a truly unified work of art.
This show is a remarkable achievement. At times it sends chills down your spine and at other times it brings you to tears. You feel for these people and identify with their challenges. The music expands our understanding and connects us with these people and their situations. The cast is uniformly perfect. There is no need to single out anyone; they are all terrific.
As I left The Public, I started to think there must be something special about their Newman Theater, the original home to “Hamilton” and “Fun Home.” Both of those shows took musical theatre into unexplored territory and became mega-hits. Add “Girl from the North Country” to that theatre’s history.