Conor McPherson’s “Girl From The North Country” At The Public Theatre, Saturday, September 22nd, 2018 Reviewed
OK: Conor McPherson’s “Girl From The North Country” for dummies: second rate Eugene O’Neil meets first rate Bob Dylan. If you think you’ve seen “Girl From The North Country” before it is because it is first cousin to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. The difference is that one is among the greatest pieces of American Theatre of all time and the other isn’t, and though McPherson has not managed to make a fable, it’s underwritten and the characters are under developed. What it is is something else: a dreamscape of Dylan American, the outlines are clear, the story dovetails from its starting point of the mind, Duluth, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior between Wednesday, November 28th, Thanksgiving, and Friday, November 30th, 1934 to the present day moral malaise. . This story, and these characters, are the branded exemplars of Dylan’ own private Idaho. Apparently, a couple of years ago word went out that Dylan was looking for theatrical ideas to use his musical catalog, Conor wrote a two page treatment and won. The musical play opened in London late last year and is in previews at the Public.
I was among those who enjoyed Twyla Tharpe’s “The Time They Are A ‘Changing” Broadway bomb ballet from 2006, though given the net result it is surprising Dylan wanted to try his hand again with “Girl from The North Country”. It opened to raves across the pond and I can hear why, it isn’t a great play but it is great theatre that sets you down in the middle of what feel like a Dylan reverie, if Dylan was daydreaming and filling his world with creatures of his brain come to life. There is that famous drawing of Charles Dickens sitting in a chair while the character from his novels surround him, and Conor has done something similar here for Dylan. They aren’t REAL even in the fake real theatrical sense, they are emblems of Dylanisms, On the Wednesday before the final thanksgiving to be had at the boarding house owned by Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus -so great in Love! Valour! Compassion! twenty plus years ago), his wife, Elizabeth (the incomparable Mare Winningham), an adopted daughter of color Marianne (Kimber Sprawl) and a son Gene (Colton Ryan) the bank is about to foreclose on the boarding house, two riders are approaching, the wind began to howl.
With the central story front and center, the songs, performed on period instruments and sung by the actor and the ensemble, comment and move forward the tory. In one of the two finest examples, Gene’s ex-girlfriend shows up to tell him she is leaving to Boston to marry someone else, they duet on “I Want You” and tell you what the story hasn’t, it is very moving but in a manner not unlike watching lovers leave each other at an airport: we don’t know enough to be involved but we know enough to be hurt for them. Gene is a most Dylan like character, a callow youth hiding levels of pain in alcohol and abruptness. One of the two men that were approaching is Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt -Aaron Burr in “Hamilton”) as a boxer recently released from prison, he gets “Hurricane” of course but more importantly he gets a verse of “Slow Train” . Harcourt is electrifying, “Hurricane” is classic rock, but “Slow Train” is Gospel and something more as well, it is a full throated expression of the horrors of a people without God and who are devouring themselves,
At the boarding house is Nick’s mistress, a bankrupt man and his wife and autistic son, and visiting is a Doctor who is narrating the story. From the highs of a Thanksgiving singalong to “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” to the depths of “Idiot Wind”. In a world without God, all are punished and the protean Dylan song are all over the map (“Duquesne Whistle” is off Dylan’ last album of original material) and all of a piece. It is a form of Americana for sure though not only a form of Americana, it is an extension of the story by song, and the story need extended because it is too close to character sketches.
It isn’t perfect but it works very well, the Irishman is of a piece with the poverty stricken extremes of Depression era USA.