Girl from the North Country review: Conor McPherson's grim, ravishing Bob Dylan musical

Belasco Theater, New York

The acclaimed playwright has used the songbook of Bob Dylan to create an overstuffed yet often transcendent 30s-set Broadway show

Overstuffed, often hollow, and for all that, incontestably ravishing, Girl From the North Country, Conor McPherson’s Depression-era gloss on Bob Dylan’s back pages, makes its windblown way to Broadway. In 1934, in Duluth, Minnesota, a frostbitten piece of earth and Dylan’s hometown, lost souls congregate in the parlor of a rundown guesthouse, hurtling toward foreclosure. They drink, they scrap, they fumble toward what they might call love. And sometimes, when the lonesome piano plinks, they lean into I Want You or Idiot Wind.

McPherson, the Irish writer and director, favors American mythos and archetypes so bleak they verge on comic, giving us the man on the run (Austin Scott, extraordinary), the fat cat in thin times (Marc Kudisch), the preacher who doesn’t practice (Matt McGrath), the boy who never grew up (Todd Almond), the widow waiting for her ship to come in (a lush-voiced Jeannette Bayardelle). At Girl’s center are the Laines, who run the guesthouse: Nick (Jay O Sanders), blustering and ineffectual, and Elizabeth (Mare Winningham, in a strange and singular performance), gone vague and wild with dementia. Their son, Gene (Colton Ryan), a drunk and would-be writer, is about to lose his best girl (Caitlin Houlahan). Their adopted daughter, Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), is pregnant by a man she won’t name.

The set, by Rae Smith, who also designed the costumes, is a series of flats that sketch in rooms, then lift away as backwall projections that intimate the darkness beyond, an effect enhanced by Mark Henderson’s crepuscular lighting. Girl, with its self-conscious narration, calls back to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, though I thought mostly of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, another tale of no-hopers drawn into destructive fellowship, a symphony in which every character eventually plays his or her own doleful solo. Still Girl feels somehow even more forlorn, its ice eternal.

Mare Winningham and Jay O Sanders on stage.
Mare Winningham and Jay O Sanders on stage. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

With so many characters, the action darts hectically from one quiet disaster to the next, with just about everyone heartbroken or bust or both. Strung together with brief monologues from Robert Joy’s Dr Walker, a morphine addicted GP, the play functions more as a series of vignettes than as a sustained narrative. McPherson, an accomplished playwright who began his career with monologues for one or two voices, never seems quite at ease when marrying dialogue to dramatic structure.

This homespun misfortune, with its shadings of melodrama (how will the mortgage get paid!), excites empathy and then fatigues it, making you leave feeling smaller than when you came in. I kept hoping that McPherson’s grim, wistful book would suggest something profound or even glancingly wise about human endeavor. But it’s both busy and strangely void, limning its characters rather than fully exploring them, piling tragedy onto tragedy like some terrible sundae, with a catastrophic cherry on top.

But then there is the music, orchestrated by Simon Hale for piano, fiddle and harmonica, hauntingly arranged (Hale again) for voices that huddle around a radio microphone as though against the cold. These 21 songs, some familiar (Like a Rolling Stone), some more obscure (Duquesne Whistle, from 2012), don’t function the way they do in most book musicals. They don’t advance the plot or goose the mood. They reveal character only sporadically. Instead, they remind us of Dylan’s bardic strengths, his hymning of loneliness and a very American kind of longing. Occasionally the lyrics serve the story directly, as in Scott’s scintillating Hurricane, unnecessarily mixed with All Along the Watchtower. But more often, they urge the show into a symbolic space, making of the character’s quotidian griefs something starker and more elemental, lifting Girl From the North Country toward transcendence.


Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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