“Blowin’ in the Wind”
The many fans of the wonderful Irish playwright The Weir, The Night Alive) will no doubt be excited to see a new play by him but music lovers will be even more excited at its incorporation of many classic songs by . I wish I could say both of these brilliant talents come off equally as well.(
Even if, like me, you find McPherson’s play—set during the Depression in a boarding house in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, in November and December 1934—less than stellar, you’ll probably agree that it serves aptly as a dramatic context into which Dylan’s songs fit beautifully. And that’s regardless of the fact that he was born seven years after the fictional events depicted. Girl from the North Country, named, of course, after a Dylan classic, is so musically agreeable that I’m forced to put my caveats about its dramaturgy aside and recommend it with a five-star rating, whether you’re a Dylan fan or not.
|Jeannette Bayardelle and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Nick is deeply in debt and Elizabeth has early onset dementia, which doesn’t stop the otherwise decent Nick from carrying on with Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), a widow waiting for the money her railroad employee husband left her to clear probate. The Laines’ 20-year-old son, Gene (Colton Ryan), is a jobless, alcoholic, would-be writer. In one of the plot elements most difficult to swallow, their 19-year-old daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), is black, abandoned by her parents as an infant and raised by the bighearted Laines. Marianne’s problem is she’s five months pregnant by a Lake Superior boatman who’s sailed off into the Minnesota sunset.
|Mare Winningham, Stephen Bogardus. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Filling out the cast of principals are three more characters. One is Dr. Walker (Robert Joy), the local doctor, who also occasionally serves as the Our Town-like narrator, speaking into a standing mic to provide expository background and, at the end, a (posthumous) summary of what happened to the people we’ve met. Then there’s the thickly bearded Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), an elderly “shoe mender,” who offers money to make the reluctant Marianne his live-in companion (marriage to her being illegal). Finally, we have Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan), the pretty girl who leaves Gene to marry someone more stable.
This assemblage is further amplified by a gifted four-member, racially mixed, backup-singing and dancing ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, and Chelsea Lee Williams) who apparently represent friends and neighbors. The show’s fluid conventions allow moments when the ensemble members get brief solos, just as the principals often drop their characters to become part of the ensemble’s choral numbers. They may even play musical instruments, as when both Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason demonstrate their drumming skills.
|Mare Winningham. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
McPherson’s multiple plot strands follow each character, introducing elements of financial loss, alcoholism, abandonment, loneliness, marital stress, sexual longing, adultery, romantic heartbreak, fisticuffs, blackmail, gunfire, and death. Still, an ersatz quality keeps invading the premises. It’s unlikely, for example, that these 1930s Midwesterners would have dropped so many f-bombs. Also not ringing true is an intrusive moment of magic realism when Marianne describes the encounter that led to her pregnancy.
|Kimber Sprawl, Sydney James Harcourt. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Then there’s the racial issue. Given the play’s own emphasis on race-based biases in 1920s and 1930s Duluth (Dr. Walker cites a notorious 1920 lynching), the idea of a black child being raised by white parents while barely raising any local eyebrows seems a stretch. Even the entry of the black Joe Scott into the household, and his casual reaction to Marianne’s presence, doesn’t feel right. This air of unreality is further underlined by casting a black actress, excellent as she is, as Mrs. Nielsen, Nick’s lover.
Elizabeth is as likely to be not only lucid and articulate in one moment as she is in the next to be mentally distracted. Despite Winningham's winning performance, this often makes it confusing as to just how bad her condition is. It’s also a bit much to see Nick, inches from his wife, not only speaking candidly about her to Mrs. Nielsen but openly discussing their affair as if Elizabeth weren’t there. These are just a few of the problems that make McPherson’s script less than it might be.
|Luba Mason and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Rae Smith’s open scene design—movable walls, background vistas, and furniture—allows for the omnipresent company to move things about in the semidarkness. Smith’s period costumes are especially on the mark, and little could be done to improve the deftly imaginative lighting of Mark Henderson.
Some have questioned whether Girl from the North Country is or isn’t a jukebox musical. Of course, it is, given that the script is designed to allow the insertion of multiple, preexisting, songs. There are many kinds of jukebox musicals. This one is the type that fits the songs of a particular performer or writer into a new story, such as Broadway’s Head over Heels, with its Go-Gos’ score used for a plot set in the middle ages.
One of the things that makes Girl from the North Country different is that Dylan’s lyrics often have little to do with the moments they illustrate, or do so only tangentially. Even the title song has nothing to do with the play, at least not directly. More significant than their specificity is their emotional value, which comes across in the impact made by both their words and music, especially as performed in this production, where every song sounds freshly minted.
|Todd Almond and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Public Theater/Newman Theater
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through December 23