Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson's play based on and including songs by Bob Dylan – which opened last fall at the Old Vic in London and is now playing at The Public Theater in New York – isn't anyone's idea of a jukebox musical. It's mysterious and dark, populated by characters that could have walked out of Dylan songs, and set in the 1930s in Duluth, Minn., where Dylan himself was born. The first two songs the audience hears are "Sign on the Window" and "Went to See the Gypsy," from New Morning, not exactly hits, and even popular tunes are re-arranged to reveal the darkness at their core. Mamma Mia this isn't.
There is a question of parentage in the plot, as it happens, but it's about the father of a baby carried by Marianne, a young African-American woman who was abandoned by her own parents and adopted by Nick and Elizabeth Laine, who own the boarding house where the play is set. That's only part of the plot, though. Elizabeth suffers from a form of dementia, Nick is having an affair with a guest who may be coming into some money, and their son is an alcoholic who wants to be a writer. The guests are just as colorful – a man who talks like a big shot, his flirtatious wife, and their grown son who has the strength of an adult but the mind of a child; plus a boxer and a Bible salesman who may have their own secrets. The mood might best be described as Winter Is Coming – both literally and emotionally.
Girl from the North Country isn't exactly realist drama, though. Like the folk songs that inspire Dylan's best work, the play blends human-scale drama with forces, both real and not, that lie outside the characters' control. Nick owes money to the bank, he's become more of a nurse than a husband to Elizabeth, and he wants to pair Marianne off with a widower who has the resources to take care of her and her expected child. Except that Marianne doesn't know who the father of her baby is, and her description of what happened hints at some kind of otherworldly explanation. (No one seems as mystified by this as you'd expect, but in this play – and in Dylan's songs – the American Midwest is a lot weirder than you'd expect.) At the end of the play, Marianne moves out to seek a better life with the boxer – who just happens to be named Joe. Could the end of December be approaching?