In works that include The Weir and The Seafarer, Irish playwright Conor McPherson spins spooky tales whose vivid characters frequently tangle with ghosts. Real and imagined, indignant, sad, threatening or bent on revenge, they champ against their ectoplasmic walls, determined to reframe the destinies of the living. Desperate flesh and hungry shade coexist in an unsettling demimonde that’s creepy and compelling, fantastic and truthy.
With Girl from the North Country, he relocates from Dublin to Duluth, specifically a boarding house in that town on the shore of Lake Superior in Bob Dylan’s home state. Boarding houses, with their shape-shifting roster of transients and hangers-on, offer homey hangouts for ghosts as well, which would suggest a felicitous pairing of McPherson and Dylan, who gave the playwright carte blanche and his blessing to repurpose any works from his catalogue of 350-plus songs.
The resulting show, staged by the playwright and set during the Great Depression, features 19 songs. A few loom in boldface from the Dylan iconography: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “I Want You,” “Hurricane” and “Forever Young” among them. Many more may be unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated Dylanologists. The show boasts nearly as many characters, each with a story to share. Sometimes song, individual and story intersect, but mostly they butt up against each other, like real people and ghosts, in a work that is luminous in spots (many spots, if I’m being truthful). Nevertheless, the whole is fragmented and resistant to any unifying notion beyond the obvious: This was a terrible time, a time that brought out the worst, and the best, in people doing their damnedest to survive.
McPherson isn’t the first to tackle Dylan. Most famous was Twyla Tharp’s 2006 Broadway debacle, The Times They Are a-Changin’. There the problem was the choreographer’s attempt to impose a coherent theme on a collection of songs so vast in subject and catholic in styles as to defy any but the most Pynchonesque style of storytelling. In other words, the opposite of McPherson’s work, which takes up no such challenge.
Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus, perfect in modesty, stylish in sincerity) owns the boarding house and is facing bankruptcy with his wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), who is disintegrating into dementia, though, given her sporadic moments of lucidity, is not altogether far-gone. They have two grown children, Gene (Colton Ryan), a nascent writer and alcoholic, and Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), abandoned to them as an infant and now pregnant by a man whose identity she will not reveal. Nick has a lover, Mrs. Nielsen (Jeanette Bayardelle), a resident who hopes to use the money from her late husband’s estate to set them up in a more profitable establishment, if the money survives probate.
Among the other guests is a couple (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason) who lost everything in the crash and is struggling to cope with their mentally disabled adult son (Todd Almond). Also, a pair of newcomers: a shady Bible salesman (David Pittu) and his traveling companion, a gifted boxer (Sydney James Harcourt) whose career has been sidelined by a stint in prison he did not deserve. Their appearance stirs the shaky ground beneath them all as the local doctor and the show’s narrator (Robert Joy) weaves together the story’s disparate strands.
McPherson and orchestrator Simon Hale have recast the works dramatically. The result, when one character introduces a song and is joined by the rest of the company and a band playing period instruments, is gorgeous and perverse. Winningham, for example, introduces “Like a Rolling Stone” in a soft near-whisper. It accrues power as the cast joins in, lending choral weight to the line, “How does it feel to be without a home?” And yet it’s jarring to hear this howl of urban vengeance morphed into a funereal dirge. Similarly, “I Want You,” sung by Ryan, is drained of its sexual urgency and becomes an ode to remorse. “Idiot Wind” is sliced and diced into bits that are nearly unrecognizable (to be sure, Dylan himself has done this to the song at some concerts).
The standouts are magnificent, especially “Tight Connection to My Heart” and “Slow Train.” And the company is flawless. Pittu and Harcourt are exceptional as the sinister con artist and the guileless fighter. Rae Smith is responsible for the deeply evocative set and costumes, Mark Henderson for the sepulchral lighting. Beautiful to look at and splendid to hear, Girl from the North Country is good company. But McPherson’s ghosts are as ephemeral as Dylan’s lyrics are timeless – qualities that can mean either the same thing or their exact opposites. I still can’t say for certain which one the show is aiming for.