A nation is broken. Life savings have vanished overnight. Home as a place you thought you would live forever no longer exists. People don’t so much connect as collide, even members of the same family. And it seems like winter is never going to end.
That’s the view from Duluth, Minnesota, 1934, as conjured in the profoundly beautiful “Girl From the North Country,” a work by Irish dramatist Conor McPherson built around vintage songs by Bob Dylan. You’re probably thinking that such a harsh vision of an American yesterday looks uncomfortably close to tomorrow. Who would want to stare into such a dark mirror?
Yet while this singular production, which opened Thursday night at the Belasco Theater under McPherson’s luminous direction, evokes the Great Depression with uncompromising bleakness, it is ultimately the opposite of depressing. That’s because McPherson hears America singing in the dark. And those voices light up the night with the radiance of divine grace.
A fluent fusion of seeming incompatible elements, “Girl” occupies territory previously unmapped on Broadway, and it speaks its own hypnotic language. Technically, you could say it belongs to a genre that is regarded by some as the great blight of Broadway: the jukebox musical, which uses back catalogs of popular recording artists as scores.
“Girl” does indeed feature some 20, career-spanning songs by Dylan, who was born in Duluth in 1941. But for this hybrid production, previously staged at London’s Old Vic Theater in 2017 and at New York’s Public Theater the following year, McPherson has thrown away all the usual jukebox templates.
The musical numbers in his portrait of a crowded boardinghouse in a cruel season do not spring organically from the plot. Only rarely does there seem to be a direct connection between Dylan’s lyrics and the actions of the characters.
Instead, McPherson dares to present music as belonging to a parallel universe, a realm that abuts the dreary reality of the play’s here and now but never overlaps it. When the superb ensemble sings — tenderly, angrily and often ravishingly — it seems to come from a place their characters could never identify in their conscious minds, but which is essential to their survival.
Fate — and economics, climate and other people — aren’t kind to the denizens of this cold, cold landscape. Music is what they have within themselves to keep warm, to keep moving and to keep hearing hope, even if it’s only a whisper.
Not that anyone in “Girl” — which has an echoing, imagistic precision you associate with first-rate poetry — has much reason to hope.
At its center is Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders, an invaluable new addition to the cast), who is facing foreclosure on the big, derelict house from which he rents rooms. He is helped, erratically, by his alcoholic son, Gene (Colton Ryan), and his adopted daughter, Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), who is inconveniently — and, it would seem, unaccountably — pregnant.
Gene’s wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham, fabulous), is suffering from the kind of dementia that has her babbling uncomfortable truths and hitting those who try to help her. Winningham renders madness with the brusque straightforwardness and lopsided wisdom of a Shakespearean fool.
Nick is played by Sanders with a hauntingly exhausted rage. Late in the show, he says of himself, “You live too long, you see too much. It chips away at you …. How can you love someone who ain’t got a soul?” He is perhaps the play’s strongest character, and the one furthest beyond hope. It’s telling that he’s the only person onstage who doesn’t sing.
The other residents include Mr. and Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason), a squabbling couple of ambiguous provenance, and their son, Elias (Todd Almond), a grown-up with the mind of a child. The widowed Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle) is waiting in vain for a windfall inheritance; she is also sleeping with Gene.
Later arrivals to this makeshift ménage include Rev. Marlowe (Matt McGrath), a Bible-selling man of the (tattered) cloth, and Joe Scott (Austin Scott), a boxer newly out of prison. Regular visitors include Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), an elderly shoemaker whom Gene hopes might take Marianne as a common-law wife.
Then there’s Dr. Walker, the local physician and a morphine addict (a pitch-perfect Robert Joy), who serves as a semi-omniscient narrator. Interaction among all them all is fitful, graceless and sometimes potentially violent, as if the rules for social behavior have been long forgotten.
You’ve probably met folks like them before. McPherson is willfully recycling structures and stereotypes of Depression-era plays, blending the heightened naturalism of big-cast social melodramas like Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” with the homespun eternity of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
That pastiche element annoyed me when I first saw “Girl,” with an English cast in London. But I’ve come increasingly to admire McPherson’s use, and subversion, of well-worn tropes to create a collective national sensibility, filtered through decades of memory. “Girl” shakes up its cultural clichés — which may make you think of passed-down, hard-times stories in your own family — to cut through to the genuine pain of a traumatic chapter in American history.
Rae Smith’s set and costumes, lighted with a sense of endless night by Mark Henderson, summon a world of frightening impermanence. Even when there’s anchoring furniture — a laden Thanksgiving table, for instance — you feel that it’s all on the brink of disappearing.
But consider what’s also visible on the stage from the beginning: a radio, a piano, a bass, a set of drums and old-timey microphones on stands. These are the instruments of redemption.
Again and again, one of the hapless souls on stage will step up to the mic and lead a Dylan classic in a voice that suggests not thought, but deepest feeling made audible. It could be an achingly wistful “I Want You” (sung to perfection by Ryan and Caitlin Houlahan) or an improbably reborn “Like a Rolling Stone,” with a tambourine-rattling Winningham flailing like a sheet in the wind.
Throughout you become newly aware of themes of rootlessness, isolation, disenfranchisement and — beyond that — an upward-reaching spiritualty in the music of Dylan, and you remember he was indeed a child of the Depression. (This show makes a good case for his much-debated Nobel Prize for literature.)
Exquisitely arranged by Simon Hale and performed by onstage musicians (who sometimes include cast members, with Mason’s jaded Mrs. Burke a knockout on drums), the music has both a plaintive country twang and big-band shimmer.
Without ever acknowledging the transition, and later never holding for applause, characters morph into both piquant soloists and members of a celestial backup chorus. The lighting transforms them into phantasmal silhouettes, like blurred figures from an old photograph album. And when they dance (Lucy Hind is the movement director), it’s with a paradoxical mix of rough individualism and smooth synchronicity.
“As we know, pain comes in all kinds,” Dr. Walker tells the audience early in the show. “Physical, spiritual, indescribable.” Those varieties of pain are all palpable in “Girl,” and they’re never going to be healed. And then the music starts. You don’t know where it comes from, or even exactly what it means. But there’s no mistaking the sound of salvation. ‘Girl From the North Country’
At the Belasco Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, northcountryonbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Credits: Written and directed by Conor McPherson; music and lyrics by Bob Dylan; sets and costumes by Rae Smith; orchestrations, arrangements and music supervision by Simon Hale; additional arrangements by Simon Hale and McPherson; lighting by Mark Henderson; sound by Simon Baker; technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates; music director, Marco Paguia; movement director, Lucy Hind; music coordinator, Dean Sharenow; production stage manager, Jeff Brancato; general manager, Foresight Theatrical/Aaron Lustbader. Presented by Tristan Baker and Charlie Parsons for Runaway Entertainment, Steven Lappin, Sony Music Entertainment/Sony ATV, David Mirvish, Len Blavatnik, the Dodgers, Eric and Marsi Gardiner, Dianne Roberts, John Gore Organization, Nederlander Presentations, Tommy Mottola, Independent Presenters Network, Rod Kaats, Diana DiMenna, Mary Beth O’Connor, Barbara H. Freitag, Patrick Catullo, Aaron Lustbader, executive producer and the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus, artistic director, Kate Varah, executive director and Georgia Gatti, producer and the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director, Patrick Willingham, executive director and Mandy Hackett, director of Public Theater Productions.
Cast: Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Matt McGrath, Tom Nelis, Colton Ryan, Jay O. Sanders, Austin Scott, Kimber Elayne Sprawl and Mare Winningham.
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