Theater Review (NYC): ‘Girl from the North Country’ by Conor McPherson, Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
I cannot imagine any writer but Conor McPherson effectively providing such a dramatic flight path to Bob Dylan’s repertoire. The playwright’s eerie, atmospheric writing effectively implies connections between the material at hand and otherworldly realms. Dylan’s titular song is part of the hybrid McPherson musical Girl from the North Country, which is part song cycle, part winsome and effusive-with-longing memory play. Extended, the production currently runs at The Public Theater until 23 December.
Indeed, in this musical, which the playwright also directed, McPherson’s writing and Dylan’s songs have reached an apotheosis of sorts. Their collaboration is a fascinating meld. And their works morph like sand under the tremendous heat and pressure of sadness, fear, and desperation to depict a desperate time in 1934. The result when cooled becomes a glass through which we see clearly the emotional and spiritual impact of longing, desiccated dreams, the desolation of impoverishment, unfulfilled love and loss.
We recognize that that era is like our current one. Thus, these elements in the characters’ songs and word-arias become empathetic fragments. And in them we find threads familiar from our own lives meshing with the raw, explicit rendering of soul-weakened characters who “can’t catch a break.”
McPherson, the seminal Irish playwright of the haunting Shining City, The Weir, and The Seafarer, always exposes the spiritual elements present in our midst, whether we want to acknowledge them or not. For his part, Dylan for over 50 years has entertained and moved us with poetic evocations of life’s gritty and hope-inspired underbelly. Indeed, his brilliance manifests in his reverse chameleon-like morphology. Incrementally, he started trends, then left them to form others after musician admirers saturated the field with imitations. Always fresh, insightful, wise, Dylan has become a treasured cultural prophet and minstrel wandering through the times of our lives.
Over the decades he has proven himself more than a masterful tunesmith, though the Nobel Prize Committee bestowed its award for his songwriting. His word-craft and storytelling ballads remain unique and particular to Dylan. He has shepherded us through repeated social crises and cultural transformations. But Dylan stayed true to himself. He adhered only to the shifting currents within, despite the outward tug of his fans’ pressure to keep doing the same stuff.
Together McPherson and Dylan achieve a new boldness and resonance. Surely, that remains one reason why this stellar production at the Public inspires and rises to an extraordinary level. This abides especially because of the striking voices of the cast. It also comes from the stunning portrayals that echo characters from John Steinbeck’s Depression-era short stories and novels. Mare Winningham’s depiction of Elizabeth Laine is just gobsmacking.
Thus, the memorable fusion of two greats illuminates like starlight. Indeed, the production may guide the way for future collaborations by others of like kin. McPherson’s and Dylan’s first time out of the gate wins with grace, humor, delight, and poignancy. Its rich fullness bears seeing more than once. For you may miss the book’s subtle themes intermingled with the parallel thematic thrust of Dylan’s songs. Gleaning how the show subtly weaves the songs into the characterizations and story development pleasantly startles. Dylan’s “Sign on the Window” and “You Aint Goin’ Nowhere” exemplify the characters’ ironic, spiritual situations, for example.
In all of McPherson’s works, spirits materialize. Sometimes, devils manifest, including a few “Christian” human devils. Some leave once they have moved humanity to act. Other spirits continue to haunt his characters with surreal guilt. In Girl From the North Country, a sister’s horrific end floats in the consciousness of Nick Laine, a fact Dr. Walker (Robert Joy) and Elizabeth Laine his wife (Mare Winningham) affirm.
Nick doesn’t admit to this “haunting.” But Elizabeth, at times strikingly sentient, other times searingly dementia-addled, suggests its impact. She refers to “hearing the girl down the hole” when she resists Nick’s struggles to attend her. In another instance, when Nick attempts to finalize the deal to marry off their adopted daughter, the pregnant Marianne (a moving Kimber Sprawl), to the 70-year-old Mr. Perry (a fine Tom Nelis), Elizabeth speaks of “the girl.” Thus, “the girl” becomes the signifier of women as casualties of abandonment, accidental negligence, and death at the unwitting hands of men.
This metaphor, further strengthened by the male/female interactions throughout, provides the backdrop for various songs. Love, its strength, its loss, is a theme found in Dylan’s songs: “Tight Connection to My Heart,” “I Want You,” “Make You feel My Love.” The husband/wife relationships weakened by want and economic stresses languish (“True Love Tends to Forget,” “What Can I Do For You,” “Is Your Love in Vain.”) And the young girls Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) and Marianne have few options but to settle for those they do not love, in order to gain security and shelter.
Escape from this desolation of want and hopelessness lurks in every character’s mind, especially in Elizabeth’s. Her “escape hatch” under her chair, where she’s collected coins and dollars, suggests women’s behavior from time immemorial. Sadly, the paltry sum wouldn’t take her far. And her dementia, if she did “escape,” would result in her being placed in a mental institution. Thus, Nick, the best husband he can be under the circumstances, humors and takes care of her with Marianne’s and his mistress Mrs. Neilsen’s (Jeannette Bayardelle) help.
After Dr. Walker apprises us of what happened and “the girl”‘s relationship to Nick, we understand why, throughout the production, Nick never sings his own individual/solo song. Unable to forgive himself for her death, he increasingly allows his inner life to wither. Laine’s emotional and psychic state remains doubly clear when he says to Mrs. Neilsen that he “has no soul” and can’t tell her he loves her. Desolation would overcome him with alcoholism, but he must take care of Elizabeth. It is she whom he lives for, as her caretaker. Their occasional interaction during Elizabeth’s sentient periods forces edgy and humorous exchanges.
Except for Dr. Walker and the elderly Mr. Perry, each character sings either his soul’s theme that typifies his/her existence or a song of regret and loss that asks questions about life and love. Most striking for me is Sydney James Harcourt’s portrayal as the boxer Joe Scott. His rendition of “The Hurricane,” portends the (racial) storm coming, both physically and metaphorically. Obviously, McPherson has drawn parallels between his Joe Scott and the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose quest for freedom Dylan supported against wrongful imprisonment in the 1960s.
Winningham brilliantly delivers “Like a Rolling Stone” with nuanced depth and power. With it Elizabeth indicts all who have entered their boarding house, her family, herself, indeed all humanity. For all, whether they admit it or not, are “on their own,” facing their own abyss. The rhetorical question “How does it feel?” and the silent answer we all fear and know in our “aloneness” become the signature theme of the musical. Fabulous!
Dr. Walker narrates the story of the Laines and their guesthouse. And Mr. Perry delivers a powerful word-aria when he attempts to persuade 19-year-old Marianne that he will take care of her, die soon, and leave her his inheritance – so why not couple? However, like Nick Laine, both Perry and Walker remain songless. It is as if they haven’t the heart/soul to pour out their feelings in melodic phrases.
Stephen Bogardus’ (recently Dr. Mark Bruchner in Irish Rep’s On a Clear Day) dynamic voice has been closed off to portray Nick Laine. His Laine draws us in as he exhibits tireless efforts as proprietor of the boarding house he manages in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934. This semi-stolid figure, in his chaotic guesthouse, offering cheap room and board to a bankrupt businessman, his wife and son, a widow, a Bible salesman, and a boxer, cannot keep his family prospering. Like his impoverished guests, he struggles to make it to the next day and attempts to be sanguine about it. Of course he dreams and works at escape with Mrs. Neilsen; they wish to leave with her inheritance and start a hotel. It’s a Eugene O’Neill pipe dream!
As the musical develops, every hopeful door slams in Nick’s face. Son Gene (Colton Ryan) never gets that railroad job Nick moved heaven and earth to get for him. And Marianne doesn’t settle down with Mr. Perry, who offered to provide Laine with a check to pay a bit of his mortgage debt. Living with Perry would safeguard his daughter and her baby, Nick believes, though Marianne prefers seeking the baby’s father. When lawyers defraud Mrs. Neilsen, she decides to leave. For Nick this last door slams in his face.
And when there appears to be no way out, Nick considers suicide. Dr. Walker mentions the high suicide rates after the Wall Street crash. Surely, suicides continued in high numbers during those Depression years. Homelessness, want, sickness, starvation – Nick has seen sufferers in tent embankments like those so trenchantly described in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Nick fears for himself and Elizabeth, for in a few months the bank will foreclose on their mortgage. Assuredly, they will end up like the other ragtags living in tents unless he finds a way for them.
Considering that Dylan’s songs range over decades, written before this project ever could have been conceived, McPherson selected an appropriate setting and characters for his musical’s book. Every character’s desperation spills out into urgent need for money and shelter. Like the Joads of Grapes of Wrath, right before they lose their home and travel, these characters strive and seek the comfort of one another. Thankfully, Nick’s boarding house provides “a welcome for lost souls.” There, Nick feeds them, they celebrate Thanksgiving, they dance. However, Mrs. Burke (Luba Mason), Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), and Elias Burke (Todd Almond) hide secrets. So do Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu) and Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt). On the run, they bring their fears and hidden sorrows to this guesthouse and eventually their darkness is brought into the light.
Perhaps the most poignant of fears concerns the Burkes, whose strong, powerfully built son Elias manifests the mind of a three-year-old. Like the character Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, he understands little of his world around him and stumbles into fearful trouble.
The poignance of his demise is uplifted when Todd Almond as Elias magnificently sings “Duquesne Whistle.” As a spirit he has gone to the afterlife. No more materialistic pain and suffering shackles his mind and heart in darkness. Dressed in a white suit, free of his mental challenges, he and the chorus celebrate that other dimension McPherson beautifully presents. It is a full-on, gospel “coming home” ceremony. Elias (like his name-variant prophet Elijah), “makes it to the other side” of Light in a wonderful capstone to Almond’s complex and nuanced portrayal that stuns.
Thanksgiving, the last memorable party, follows with grim realities that unload truths on all of them. Only Elizabeth, after her marvelous speech about love and her marriage to Nick, afterward singing “Forever Young,” remains stalwart in her sentience and distraction. Indeed, with Nick’s help she has mastered the art of balance even in her dementia.
With finality, we look in the background at their last Thanksgiving together in tableau, as Dr. Walker narrates what he knows of the characters’ futures, reminiscent of the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And as McPherson is wont to do and does believably, Dr. Walker shares his passing to “the other side” in Christmas of 1934. We realize then that he has been speaking to us as a spirit of his memories of the Laines, the guests, and that time.
What more can be said about this marvelous must-see-a-few-times production? The chorus/ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams), are exceptional in voice and movement. Kudos to Rae Smith (scenic & costume design), Mark Henderson (lighting design), and Simon Baker (sound design). Simon Hale’s orchestrations and arrangements of Dylan’s music are exceptional. Additionally, without Lucy Hind, Unkledave’s Fight-House, Dean Sharenow, Marco Paguia, the actors who played in the band (Todd Almond, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason), and musicians Martha McDonnell, Mary Ann McSweeney, and others, the full impact of the production would be lessened.