Actually, I was so involved in the story that I resented when intermission arrived.
That’s how arresting GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is at The Public Theatre.
I didn’t want to wait fifteen minutes (or more, depending on rest room lines) to find out what would happen to those poor people.
“Poor” in this case means both “impoverished” and “unfortunate.” There are more double meanings in this extraordinary work that Conor McPherson both wrote and directed.
Just listen to the woman who says to a man “I can see a louse” when talking about an insect invading her space. After a while, we see that she’s quietly implying that he’s one, too.
McPherson should get another credit as well: inserter, for he’s taken on the task of interspersing 20 Bob Dylan songs into his script. To be frank, they’re the main reason that GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is one of the scarcest tickets in town. So although the play’s the thing, we’ll first deal with the show’s biggest selling point.
McPherson chose three Dylan songs from the ‘60s, ten from the ‘70s, five from the ‘80s, one from the ‘90s and one from this century. Even those who’ve had only a passing interest in the songwriter will know a song that was included on his first Greatest Hits album: “I Want You.” Just in case you don’t know it, though, it goes “I want you. I want you. I want you so bad.”
Repetitive and trite? Sure. These words remind us that pop songs must deliver their messages in two or three minutes; there’s little room for subtlety. Musicals, however, often state in dialogue what needs to be said before a song begins; when it arrives, its lyrics enhance what has been established and then builds on it.
Such an approach is absent here.
Dylan’s lyrics aren’t always perfunctory. “Someday I’m going to remember to forget” and “I can’t figure out if I’m too good for you or if you’re too good for me” are theatrical worthies. So is “It’s a wonder that I still know how to breathe.”
Many lyrics simply reiterate what’s already been stated in McPherson’s fine scenes. Songs often serve as mini-divertissements and don’t often enough allude to the action. Dylan’s actual lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone” establish that a woman must now live on the street. Here that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s been no change of lyric to accommodate the situation.
Can we even call this show a musical? Aside from the songs chosen to end each act, no applause buttons are present, making this come across more as a play with music.
With most of the songs sung straight to the audience, there’s a concert feel to the show. This is especially true when mid-song a soloist at a stand-up microphone finds the rest of the cast entering behind, moving to stand-up mikes and crooning back-up.
Few in the audience will mind, and not simply because the choral work is excellent. Baby Boomers who are affluent enough to attend theater – and millennials who get money from their parents — have attended many more concerts than musicals. As a result, they’re used to this type of entertainment.
So GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is a “remind-me” musical for Dylan fans who’ll be happy just to hear his previous hits and obscurities. As in concerts, nostalgia reigns.
Here’s hoping that fans won’t be disappointed by the new orchestrations, because Simon Hale has made them sound right for rural Duluth in the ‘30s.
Meanwhile, Rae Smith’s purposely run-down set and
dim lighting captures The Great Depression. That unfortunate period is the real villain of the piece which will cause, as one line goes, “pain to come in all sizes.” If Dickens hadn’t already appropriated the title HARD TIMES, McPherson could have aptly used it here.
Elizabeth Laine is clinically depressed because her husband Nick hasn’t been able to find the money to stop or even stall the upcoming foreclosure on their home. Two months from now, they’ll be out on the street.
The Laines’ income has come from running run a “guest house” – a nice-enough euphemism for rooming house – where Nick has started an affair with boarder Mrs. Neilsen (a dignified Jeanette Bayardelle). Her name may not suggest it, but she’s black. This is not an example of non-traditional casting; McPherson’s dialogue states it.
Mrs. Neilsen will head to Bismarck once some expected money comes through. She’d like Nick to join her.
McPherson finds a sharp way to characterize him. Nick says he won’t go to Bismarck because he once had a bad experience with two guys who hailed from there. A man who gives that flimsy an excuse isn’t a take-charge guy.
Other tenants include Mrs. Burke (a red-hot Tangee-lipped Luba Mason), who long ago lost all confidence in Mr. Burke’s ability to make a living. So when he comes up with a new idea for business, she pours cold water on it to forestall his getting them in hot water.
Their having a developmentally disabled grown child hasn’t helped. You never know how Elias will react to any given moment. After a while, you assume that he’ll do nothing. Don’t be so sure.
Elias is not quite in the vegetated state that Elizabeth is in – or is she? We assume she’s in terrible shape when we see Nick take a spoon to her mouth to feed her. However, moments later when he’s out of earshot, Elizabeth is talking with most everyone else on the premises. She just doesn’t want to talk to him, that’s all.
So Elizabeth converses with Marianne, their adopted daughter who’s with child – or is she? Dr. Walker (a folksy Robert Joy) suggests she may be subject to an hysterical pregnancy.
Nick wants her to marry an in-the-chips septuagenarian. That the man had sexually harassed Elizabeth many years earlier is something Nick will conveniently overlook to solve the immediate problem of an impending illegitimate child.
The story of the young woman who won’t marry for security but is waiting for true love has been too often told. Add in that Marianne early on said she’d love to see Chicago. And who shows up at the boarding house but Joe Scott (an intense Sydney James Harcourt), a handsome young boxer who’s en route to Chicago?
In so many cases such as these – PICNIC is a good example – the young woman runs off with the man who’s unable to give her a pot in which to urinate. See what McPherson has her do.
He offers another familiar-seeming situation. Nick and Elizabeth’s son Gene (a sensitive Colton Ryan) wants to be a writer. Nick tells him to “Get a job!” and when he doesn’t, Dad pulls a few strings to put him on the path to getting hired.
The difference here is that Nick, unlike so many fathers before him, believes that Gene is indeed a good writer. That the lad hasn’t enough talent is not a concern; Nick just knows that making a decent living from writing is murderously difficult even when times aren’t as terribly difficult as this.
Stephen Bogardus shows that aside from Nick’s one indiscretion that he’s a good man at heart. Marc Kudisch’s Burke is superb throughout, reaching his apotheosis in an unexpected monologue. Kimber Sprawl captures Marianne’s high standards.
Mare Winningham does especially well as Elizabeth, a variation on Shakespeare’s Fool. And, my, she can sing “Like a Rolling Stone” like a true rock star.
One plot point isn’t resolved. Reverend Marlowe (a fine David Pittu) tries to blackmail Mr. Burke. We aren’t told what Burke’s alleged crime is, but considering the man’s response, we do believe that he’s guilty. The Reverend gives a deadline, but it comes and goes without another reference to it. If GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY does move to Broadway as is rumored, McPherson would do well to flesh this out.
Many have alleged over the last half-century that 1776 didn’t need to be a musical, for Peter Stone’s libretto would have been just as magnificent as a straight play. That’s also true of McPherson’s script, which is so potent and arresting that when a song arrives it almost seems to be an interruption. When you’re mesmerized by one of his many potent scenes and a song suddenly arrives, you might even be surprised by this break in the action.
You may well resent when intermission rolls around, too.