Like A Bob Dylan Song, 'Girl From the North Country' Is Mysterious, Fascinating Fun: Play Review
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?
Is there anything more Peak Dylan than a young African-American woman in the Midwest of the 1930s, perhaps pregnant by forces beyond mortal ken, seeking shelter from the storm with an unjustly convicted boxer? If so, it's the possibility that Marianne, as it's also implied, has pseudocyesis, sometimes known as hysterical pregnancy, in which women who aren't with child display signs of pregnancy. Is Joe as innocent as he says? And what about that Bible salesman?
McPherson, true to the mood of Dylan's songs, doesn't make the answers all that clear – because they matter a great deal on one level and not at all on another. Even within the confines of the boarding house, where the entire play is set, the drama has a certain mythic dimension – everyone travels by riverboat or train, money dangles out of reach, tragedy lurks around every corner (and does eventually strike).
It's hard to make all of this work musically – this isn't the kind of play where characters simply burst into song in the midst of conversation. But it does, because the songs aren't used to propel forward the action but rather to offer windows into characters' emotions: Sydney James Harcourt, who plays Joe the boxer, sings "Hurricane" with the rage an unjustly convicted man must feel; Mare Winningham, who plays Elizabeth, delivers "Like A Rolling Stone" as a broadside against a world that seems alien to her. There's relief, too, in "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and an elegiac "Forever Young" that ends the play. The songs don't play a large role in the events that occur, but they're very much at the center of the story. Emotionally, they are the story.
Girl from the North Country isn't the onstage equivalent of an obvious Dylan masterpiece like Blonde On Blonde – it doesn't have that kind of precision, or, probably, that kind of mass appeal. It's more like Street Legal or Infidels, which are represented by three songs each, more than Dylan's other albums: Mysterious and a bit strange, in a way that Dylan fans will love but a general audience might not completely understand. Like Street Legal, it makes emotional, if not always logical, sense. Like I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' brilliant 2007 movie, the play takes Dylan on his own challenging terms, as hard as that can be. At times, it's weird, fascinating fun. At others, it brings Dylan's obsessions to life as vividly as the songs themselves.