Review of Girl from the North Country at the Public Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    October 3, 2018
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    NOTE: THIS IS A REVIEW OF THE 2018 PUBLIC THEATER PRODUCTION OF GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY...

    May I just say that I take back every negative thing I have ever said about Bob Dylan. Including the part about the first time one of the cool girls at high school played his record for me back in 1965 or so, and I thought the record was on the wrong speed. Basta!

    OK. Stop reading for a moment. Stop reading RIGHT NOW and get a ticket to Girl From The North Country at the Public Theater.

    I'll wait.

    Girl From The North Country is one of those once-in-a-lifetime productions. You, I, we go to the theatre like some people go to church or temple or the Mosque or wherever it is that spirit touches your life. We go out of obligation or curiosity or habit. Most of the time it is worth it because we are touched on some level that we did not know existed. Then there are those few and magnificent occasions when you see a show like Girl From The North Country and the lid is blown off of your life.

    Girl From The North Country is one of those shows, after which you want to go to a dive bar, order a draft beer and cry in it - because there is really nothing else you can think of doing. This is one of those productions that people will whisper about. "Did you SEE it at the Public?" they will say. Before it moved, presumably.

    Girl From The North Country is one of those shows you do not want to miss. Of course you could pass on this, but I will be happy to hound you about it for the rest of your life. Just sayin'.

    The story by Conor McPherson (Writer and Director) could not be more simple. A guest house in Duluth, Minnesota, 1934 where a room casts $1.50 and whisky is 2 bits. Nick (Stephen Bogardus) and his adopted daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl) pretty much run the place. Gene Laine (Colton Ryan) spends his time out of the house writing and not actually working for money. Elizabeth Laine (Mare Winningham) is at home, but because her sanity and grip on reality have got up and gone, she is of little use. She is more of a nuisance, frankly, but this was before we shipped our troubled family members off to a home, so there she is, taking up room in her one chair and being unpredictable. Mrs. Neilsen (Jeanette Bayardelle) is a long time resident waiting on money her husband left her. Mr. & Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason) live at the rooming house on account of they have lost most of their money. Their son Elias (Todd Almond) is with them and appears to be on the deep end of the autistic spectrum. Two new borders show up as the story begins: Rev. Marlowe (David Pittu) and Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt). Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan) makes a brief appearance at a critical moment in the story. There is also Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis) who is about the only prosperous person in town and interested in Marianne's future. And finally we have our narrator Dr. Walker (Robert Joy) who appears to have been released from his captivity in Our Town to serve, and imbibe in his morphine, in this production.

    The rest of this extraordinary cast are the townsfolk who do everything from staggering choral work to moving furniture to weaving themselves into a shadow community. They are the foundation of this story. The invisible visibles.

    Nothing much happens in this town and in this house. And everything happens. People dump their souls onto the table over breakfast. They let their hopes fly when someone catches them in an intimate moment. All the while guided by Dylan's music arranged and orchestrated by Simon Hale and Mr. McPherson. Everyone in the cast gets their musical moment or two or a bunch. These are songs that you have never heard before (especially me a former non-fan of Dylan's) even if you have heard them before. The arrangements and these voices seem to pull the lyrics down from the rafters and weave them into the story. Each one is a jewel of stillness and magnitude. My grandfather used to say, "Life is so daily." Indeed. Hope here is a flame that feels too delicate to survive. The panoply of events rolls out with excruciating detail and slowly seeps over the footlights into your core. This you do not realize until Mare Winningham delivers the first shot with "How Does It Feel?" toward the end of the first act, and then lowers the boom on you with "Forever Young" as the story slows to a walk and heads for the barn.

    By the time she sings the second song you have no resistance left because you have been cracked open like a late summer melon. You see yourself juicy and glistening and raw - you see yourself as you never have before.

    You DID make your reservation, did you not?

    (Photo by Joan Marcus) 


    What the popular press says...

    "Brightness flickers fitfully in the bleak, beautiful landscape of Girl from the North Country, a rich and strange marriage of the talents of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson and the American songwriter Bob Dylan."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "McPherson uses Dylan’s songs as atmosphere in the broadest sense: They are the air the characters breathe. And when the musical’s cool gains force, it acquires a piercing chill."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Theatre's got a brand new bag: It's a crop of songs by none other than Bob Dylan. The Nobel Prize Winner's songbook is beautifully integrated in playwright Conor McPherson's musical drama, Girl From The North Country. It's an unusual work in a stirring production that's bound to get under your skin."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Conor McPherson does something unique and acutely affecting in Girl From the North Country, drawing a mythical line that connects the haunted souls of the Irish playwright's own work with the lost lovers and dreamers of Bob Dylan's songs and the Dust Bowl folk balladry of Dylan's idol, Woody Guthrie. Forget every knee-jerk resistance you've ever felt toward the idea of a jukebox musical, this is a completely different animal. Rather than artificially shoehorning songs into a purpose-built narrative, McPherson artfully builds a novelistic tapestry of archetypal figures, the poor and disenfranchised of an America suspended in time, using Dylan's pungently expressive lyrics and roots melodies to echo and amplify its themes of melancholy, yearning, hope and despair."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "Trailing clouds of glory from runs at London’s Old Vic and on the West End, Conor McPherson’s Depression-era treatment of classic Bob Dylan material vividly transforms individual songs into an extended cohesive narrative about America adrift in hard times. In this production now playing at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, songs like “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle” feel as if they were written specifically for the Depression, while an inspired ensemble of actor-singers are transformed into the heroes of their own stories, as well as characters in the lives of others."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time Out - NY1 - Hollywood Reporter - Variety