Two very different Nobel laureates haunt Conor McPherson’s The Girl from the North Country: Bob Dylan and Samuel Beckett. If Dylan’s music, which provides the emotional framework of this unorthodox jukebox musical, seems an odd fit for the Beckettian limbo in which McPherson has ensconced his characters, that’s just a testament to the worlds contained in Dylan’s songs.
McPherson’s limbo takes the form of a depression-era boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, “where winter feels seven months long.” Proprietor Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), though drowning in debt, is the calm center of the storm of people swirling through the house, not realizing they are stuck in place: Mr. and Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason), whose adult son Elias (Todd Almond) has the mind of a child; boxer Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), who may or may not have just met Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu), the bible salesman with whom he arrived; Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), the aged would-be suitor of Nick’s adopted African-American daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl); and Nick’s troubled son Gene (Colton Ryan) and mentally ill wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), who sees everything so clearly she had to shut down.
The community McPherson conjures is built on contingency, in part because of the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression, in part because of Duluth’s location at the tip of Lake Superior; people are always on their way to somewhere else. It’s a place that encourages people to reinvent themselves, just as Dylan has repeatedly reinvented himself throughout his long, storied career. McPherson is also the play’s director, and his characters are rolling stones constantly on the move, trying to outrun creditors, the law, or the indefinable terror of not knowing one’s place in the world. Yet McPherson also allows them to stop and breathe, bringing them together in varying configurations throughout the piece to sing backup for each other.
Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis has tried to distance Girl from the North Country from the much-maligned genre of jukebox musicals. The animus is often understandable, since the majority of jukebox musicals spin ridiculous contrived plots and characters to justify their songs’ placement. Like in the best examples of the form, though, the prefabricated songs in North Country are a creative challenge that spurs invention. In fact, there is often little connection between the dramatic action and the songs’ lyrics. This uncoupling of song and scene occasionally results in silly non-sequitur, such as a Thanksgiving medley of “Hurricane” and “All Along the Watchtower,” but for the most part reflects or amplifies the aching, longing, confusion, and sadness of McPherson’s collage.
Orchestrator/arranger Simon Hale is the work’s MVP. His arrangements, neither reverential nor irreverent, circumvent the personal and emotionally charged connections to Dylan’s music that many audience members bring with them. 1985’s Top 40-wannabe “Tight Connection to My Heart” is a shattering broken-heart ballad here. The accompaniment to “Like a Rolling Stone” grows from a plaintive solo accordion to a joyous percussion blast involving the whole cast. Even the instrumentation is upside down; the drum set, normally shielded away at back to avoid overpowering everything else, is boldly placed down front, always in full view.
Harcourt and Sprawl have the best voices in a company of strong singers, yet it is Almond’s “Duquesne Whistle” that proves the evening’s biggest surprise, Dylan’s jaunty 2012 two-step here becoming a full-throated revivalist stomper.
Shortly thereafter, though, the play butts up against the limits of its own meandering dramaturgy as McPherson attempts to provide resolution to a story that has demanded none. The joy of the play is the way its music stands in for all the things its characters avoid saying as a means of survival. When, in the last half of the second act, they begin to speak these things, it renders the music superfluous and leaden. Nick decides that it’s time to stop “flailin’ around,” but he is one of the few characters who hasn’t been flailing; it’s his patient fastidiousness that has kept the rooming house open. Such discrepancies are no great sins in themselves; if anything, they are more realistic than the internally consistent characters that often parade across our stages. Yet why use music that draws its power from its refusal to clarify only to turn around and try to clarify it?
Girl from the North Country runs through Dec. 23 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.