By Donna Herman
I go so you know
“Girl From the North Country,” written and directed by renowned Irish playwright Conor McPherson, and with music by iconic American songwriter and Nobel prize laureate in poetry Bob Dylan, has made the well-worn trek from The Public to Broadway. Thankfully, the stellar cast and creatives from the US premiere downtown that made it such a hit (the world premiere was in London), have moved almost en masse to Broadway.
Set in a struggling boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 (which would become Dylan’s birthplace 7 years later), “Girl From the North Country,” gives us a glimpse into the Depression era lives of the family who runs the place and its less than affluent few guests. When the play opens the boardinghouse is about to be reclaimed by the bank. Information that proprietor Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), has kept to himself. His jobless, 20-year-old son Gene (Colton Ryan) who dreams of becoming a writer and 19-year-old pregnant, unmarried daughter Marianne Laine (Kimber Elayne Sprawl) have no idea their home is about to be taken away. His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), who is suffering from dementia, nonetheless seems to have the uncanny knack of dropping the most cuttingly accurate little barbs at the most effective moment. Nick is busy plotting to get the kids set up out of the house. Gene with a job in a jobless town, and Marianne married off to Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), a 70-year-old shoe mender with a thriving business.
The other denizens of the guesthouse are just as unfortunate. Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), a destitute widow who has been trying for 3 years to get access to the railroad shares of her late husband. Mr. & Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason), a failed businessman and his wife, and their son Elias (Todd Almond) who has the body of a 34-year-old man and the mind of a 4-year-old boy. Arriving together during the beginning of the play are the Reverend Marlowe (Matt McGrath), a bible salesman and Joe Scott (Austin Scott), a former promising boxer. They were either turned away from another boarding house due to lack of space and walked over together or have just escaped from jail.
But “Girl From the North Country” is not an in-depth exploration of a single person or family. It is an elegy, a journey to a time and place in our common past whose notes linger and resonate today. It is what is so powerful about Dylan’s music, and McPherson has used it not necessarily to try and illuminate a character’s specific thoughts or experience, but rather a state of mind, or a sense of mood. This is perfectly illustrated by the foreboding blending of “Slow Train Coming/License to Kill.” And the use of the characters and townspeople as a kind of Greek Chorus with Lucy Hind’s minimal but effective movement underscores the universality of the experience of the times.
The cast is exquisite. From Mare Winningham’s joyously and cannily demented wife and mother; Austin Scott’s simmering, wronged (and seriously sexy) ex-boxer; Kimber Elayne Sprawl’s surprisingly poised 19-year-old unwed pregnant girl; to Todd Almond’s flawless portrayal of a developmentally challenged young man. Conor McPherson has proved himself as a masterful director as well as a playwright with the seamless staging of this production. It swirls and whirls using the entire stage as Rae Smith’s set and Mark Henderson’s lighting morph and transform different corners of the stage into different parts of the boarding house and the area around it.
Unfortunately, I think the production loses some of its impact in the move from the intimate theater at The Public to the larger Belasco Theatre. You lose the sense of being in the environment and having the music and the singers fill you up. Which is important in McPherson’s “Girl From the North Country” because we don’t get a deep dive into any one of the character’s stories or inner lives so it’s hard to connect emotionally on that level. You need the visceral connection to the sound and the feeling which an intimate connection to the powerful emotions of the music give you in a smaller theatrical setting.
“Girl From the North Country” Written & Directed by Conor McPherson; Music & Lyrics by Bob Dylan
WITH: Todd Almond (Elias Burke); Jeannette Bayardelle (Mrs. Neilson); Caitlin Houlihan (Kate Draper); Robert Joy (Dr. Walker); Marc Kudisch (Mr. Burke); Luba Mason (Mrs. Burke); Matt McGrath (Reverend Marlowe); Tom Nelis (Mr. Perry); Colton Ryan (Gene Laine); Jay O. Sanders (Nick Laine); Austin Scott (Joe Scott); Kimber Elayne Sprawl (Marianne Laine); Mare Winningham (Elizabeth Laine); Matthew Frederick Harris (Ensemble); John Schiappa (Ensemble); Rachel Stern (Ensemble); Chelsea Lee Williams (Ensemble).
Scenic & Costume Design by Rae Smith; Orchestrations, Arrangements & Musical Supervision by Simon Hale; Lighting Design by Mark Henderson; Sound Design by Simon Baker; Movement Direction by Lucy Hind; Casting by Jordan Thaler, CSA & Heidi Griffiths, CSA; Wig & Hair Design by Campbell Young & Associates; Music Coordinator, Dean Sharenow; Music Director, Marco Paguia; Production Stage Manager, Jeff Brancato; Stage Manager, Laurie Goldfeder.
Presented at The Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit the box office at The Belasco Theatre, Monday through Saturday 10am-8pm. Or visit https://www.telecharge.com/broadway/Girl-from-the-North-Country/Ticket?AID=bwy001305200&cm_mmc=Girl-from-the-North-Country-_-Affiliate-_-web-_-bwy001305200&cm_mmca1=show_site