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Girl from the North Country

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 1, 2018


Mare Winningham and Stephen Bogardus
Photo by Joan Marcus

Pay close attention as Mare Winningham sings Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" at the end of Act I of the bleak and stunning Girl from the North Country, opening tonight at the Public Theater. Here is a woman who knows exactly how it feels "to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown." It is a heartbreaking moment that perfectly captures the interplay between Dylan's songbook and playwright Conor McPherson's tale about a collection of angry, lost, and broken souls who are the fixed and transient residents of a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934. The Great Depression meets the great depression.

Desperation clings to the characters, who also cling to one another in an effort to stave off the crushing impact of the overwhelming global economic disaster that swept across the U. S. and much of the world in the ten years from 1929 to 1939. By setting Girl from the North Country smack dab in the center of that decade, McPherson has placed everyone precisely in the middle of the tunnel, where they can see nothing but darkness behind and in front of them. Any light at the end exists only in their imaginations and stubborn hopes, and the harsh times will bring out the best and worst in all of them.

McPherson, a playwright who often has explored the dark night of the soul through the lens of Irish culture, brings the same sensibility to an American landscape. In doing so, he draws on literary influences ranging from Thornton Wilder and John Steinbeck to Eugene O'Neill in order to weave the story of Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), his rapidly-descending-into-the-abyss wife Elizabeth (the sensational Ms. Winningham), their son Gene (Colton Ryan) and their adopted and (maybe) pregnant daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), whom Nick wants to marry off to a lonely and much older man (Tom Nelis), who can at least give her a home.

Up to now, Nick has been eking out a living by collecting meager rent for room and board from long-term and short-term guests, and he has somehow managed to hold things together against the encroaching juggernaut. But it seems they all have pretty much reached the end of their rope, and Nick expects they will lose their home to foreclosure within weeks. It is appropriately ironic that everyone is gathered for a final Thanksgiving dinner and party, when there is so little other than the company to be thankful for.

The format of the play takes on a familiar trope in which the various characters take turns telling their stories in separate or intersecting segments. Among them are a young boxer (Sydney James Harcourt) who may be a fugitive from justice; the brash Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), his morphine-using wife (Luba Mason), and their mentally challenged son (Todd Almond); a grifter of a Bible salesman (David Pittu); and Nick's lover, the recently-widowed Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), who is holding out a shred of hope in the form of an expected inheritance which she promises to use to pay off Nick's mortgage. Holding the disparate pieces together is the local doctor who also serves as the story's narrator, played with down-home earnestness by Robert Joy.

Collectively, they paint a mosaic of a generation of Americans living under the harshest of conditions. But what truly makes Girl from the North Country take wing is the marriage of storytelling and music, culled from Bob Dylan's catalog of songs he produced between 1965 and 2012. The cast members break out in singles, pairs and groups around stand mikes to perform twenty of his songs, gloriously orchestrated and arranged by Simon Hale and accompanied by gifted and talented musicians. It is through these songs as much as through the dialog that we gain entrée into the psyches of the characters.

There are, inevitably, a few holes in the story-telling, some strands that are left hanging, and what seems to be a misplaced upbeat coda intended to cut through the gloom. But between the performances, McPherson's direction, and the extraordinary music, Girl from the North Country is an undeniably magnificent theatrical work that reminds us, among other things, why Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis of his "new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."


Girl from the North Country
Through December 23
Newman Theater at the Public Theater, 25 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: publictheater.org


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