Girl from the North Country

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:4 mins read

Girl from the North Country

Belasco Theatre, NYC, March 11, 2020

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Todd Almond & Cast
Photo: Joan Marcus

“When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” (“Like a Rolling Stone”). Well, don’t expect Irish Playwright Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country set in 1934, to be the most upbeat musical on Broadway. 

Its mood is bleak and restless, formed around the enigmatic music of troubadour Bob Dylan, and it illustrates the evocative story of the era of the Great Depression. The 20 selections are poetic and intelligent, harkening to the past, coping with the present, and fearful of the future. You may not know all the songs, and some 1960s favorites, like “Blowing in the Wind,” are not included; still the selections enhance the poignancy of a hard life and townsfolk harassed by an exhausted world.  

Stepping in as occasional narrator is Robert Joy as Dr. Walker. The set is a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s hometown. Directed by Conor McPherson, a first-rate cast portrays a group of characters with complex nuances. They perform their songs, sometimes facing the audience at a standing microphone, other times joining a resonant chorus commenting on the narrative in dance or song. The vocals are rich and fervent, and with no choreography; movement director Lucy Hind designed graceful and rhythmic segments for moods of celebration or misery. (You will not hear the iconic sound of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan).

Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), worn out and broke, is the struggling owner of a failing boarding house. Mare Winningham is outstanding as his wife, Elizabeth, who suffers from early-onset dementia but still reveals outbursts of humor and more awareness than you might think. The couple has two grown children, writer Gene (Colton Ryan), who is an alcoholic short-story writer, and Marianne (Kimberly Elayne Sprawl), an African-American young girl who was abandoned as an infant and adopted by Nick and Elizabeth. Now pregnant, Marianne is encouraged by her father to marry an elderly local shoemaker (Tom Nelis). She wants nothing to do with the old man, especially after she spies the newest boarder, Joe Scott, a black boxer (Austin Scott) fleeing the law. His rendition of “Slow Train” is an echoing of despair, observing, “They talk about a life of brotherly love/Show me someone who knows how to live it.”

Other boarders, ashen and listless, have their own host of problems. Matt McGrath is smarmy as a bible salesman, and Jeannette Bayard Elle plays a confident widow, Mrs. Nielsen, waiting for her late husband’s funds to be available to her. Meanwhile, she is canoodling with Nick, unaware that his wife, Elizabeth, is still clear-headed enough to know what’s going on. Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason are a complicated couple grappling with the problems of their husky autistic teenage son, Elias (Todd Almond), who displays a constant element of danger.  

Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan’s songs reflect his interest in people and the problems that overwhelm them. The music adds to the unpromising feeling of that desperate era, as do Rae Smith’s period-perfect costumes and a drab set design shaded by Mark Henderson’s lighting. Additional kudos go to orchestrator, arranger, and musical supervisor Simon Hale.

McPherson script maintains the ambiance of the story, but its high points come when the performers perform the songs that Dylan wrote. This is where the play shines with all the facets of the traumatic era. Without the music, unfortunately, the play reveals that this is not McPherson’s best work.

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.