My takeaway when Girl From the North Country opened at the Public Theater last fall: "An American musical by people who hate musicals and don’t know America." Sounds harsh, but I stand by it. Although I’ve adored Irish writer-director Conor McPherson’s work for years, I found his book for this Bob Dylan jukebox musical to be a pile of Depression-era clichés one might amass from a week of binging TCM or skimming Steinbeck. As for the integration of Dylan songs, the tracks don’t illuminate character or plot so much as pause the narrative so everyone can enjoy a folksy singalong (cast members even climb into the drum kit). The result – which began as a hit on London’s West End with a non-American cast – seemed to me a creaky period play wrapped around a tribute concert, all imbued with a gothic, melancholic vibe because everyone onstage is broke, unloved, addicted, mad or running from the past.
Now, I like Depression-era gloom – which probably gripped Duluth, Minnesota pretty hard in 1934, the present setting. And I can appreciate the mystic-hobo allure of Dylan’s songcraft. In previous plays, I have savored McPherson’s pathos-rich portraits of lost souls struggling toward the light. However, blended together, these elements left me cold last year. So, why do I find my overall impression remarkably improved now that Girl has transferred to Broadway?
Recasting three central roles might have something to do with it. The wonderfully sharp and shifty Matt McGrath now plays the Reverend Marlowe, a shabby, chirpy Bible salesman in the company of ex-boxer and ex-con Joe Scott (Austin Scott, exuding equal parts decency and desperation). Both tramps show up on the Duluth doorstep of Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), the hard-working and no-nonsense proprietor of a boarding house. The bulk of the action of McPherson’s book orbits around Nick’s bull-headed determination to survive, no matter who it hurts in the process.
He’s the man of the house, but also the woman, since his wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) suffers from debilitating dementia. Nick cooks and cleans and looks after his two grown children – one of whom is an African American orphan he and Elizabeth adopted: Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl). The other is their own boy, Gene (Colton Ryan), a brooding, boozing young man with dreams of being a writer. Nick is haunted by the long-ago memory of his sister, who died by falling down a well when she was in Nick’s care, and by the bank, which is threatening to foreclose on the house. The play takes place around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the winter weather has drained the color and joy from everything.
Other inhabitants of Nick’s boarding house fill out the heavily populated ensemble. Sultry widow Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle) waits for her late husband’s will to be probated. Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), a blowhard businessman fallen on hard times, frequently bickers with his acidic wife (Luba Mason) as they watch over an adult, mentally disabled son (Todd Almond). Much backstory is narrated directly to the audience with dry efficiency by Dr. Walker (Robert Joy), who seems to on break from stage managing a local revival of Our Town.
Getting back to Sanders: The bearish, bass-voiced character actor – one of the most convincing, heart-rending Uncle Vanyas I can remember – is an enormous improvement. He restores the gravitational center of the book, as the sometimes emotionally brutal, physically bullying but well-meaning father. His Nick has to absorb all the humiliation and heartbreak of a world that seems to be falling apart. As his daughter and son pull away from him, he can only watch and wonder what he did wrong. Of all the characters in Girl, only Nick does not sing. No less conflicted and complex, but cast in a more heroic mold, Austin Scott’s beleaguered boxer offers Marianne a way out of this world. The rest of the cast was already strong, but with Sanders at the center, the social and emotional order of the piece finally comes into focus.
At the same time, I still have my doubts about the soundness of McPherson’s dramaturgical approach. If his primary goal is to get a lot of bodies on stage to create a sense of interwar American society represented in all its messiness and hope, then he did it. There are many – too many – characters and plot lines stuffed into a shifting panorama, and into multiple party scenes. But if he also wanted a compelling, emotionally gripping family drama, the effect is diffuse and elliptical to the point of indifference.
McPherson is a bard of human frailty and remorse. His actors are deeply sympathetic, and Dylan’s music overflows with wry wistfulness. I teared up when Sprawl’s Marianne – pregnant, abandoned, alone – delivered the plaintive refrain from “Tight Connection to My Heart” – “Has anybody seen my love?” Sanders’ impotent desolation at the end of the first act, with Winningham bitterly asking, “How does it feel?” from “Like a Rolling Stone” is deeply affecting. Yes, these individual moments, and more, make little dents and fissures in your heart, but the cardiovascular organ never fully breaks. In the end, Girl From the North Country is an interesting experiment in historical mood-setting. It’s the sort of quirky, melancholic show that will attract passionate fans. I’m only halfway there.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.