In a Great Depression-era boarding house, a woman puts on a hat, grabs a microphone, and sings the Bob Dylan classic, “Like a Rolling Stone.” And everything in the world stops. She is played by Mare Winningham and as she shakes her tambourine, the Public Theater disappears in a transporting bit of theatrical magic. Such moments happen with some frequency in Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson’s inventive new musical. Winningham plays Elizabeth Laine, the central character in a largely ensemble-driven piece, and her “Rolling Stone” is one of the most affecting stage moments I’ve experienced in a long time.
It’s not the singing that does it, though it is surprising that she has such vocal prowess. No, it’s the release, the dramatic explosion that occurs in this moment and then, before you know it, is gone. We have spent the first third of the musical hearing, from the other characters that Elizabeth has dementia, that she doesn’t know what’s going on, that her voice, thoughts, and feelings don’t matter. It is true that her facilities are impaired, but the success of McPherson’s storytelling device is that she can then use music to let her inner life come out.
Weaving the story of Elizabeth’s family and the denizens of their Minnesota flophouse with the songs of Bob Dylan, McPherson has crafted something closer to Kander and Ebb’s concept musicals (Cabaret, Chicago) than a jukebox musical. Concept musicals are marked by a disconnect between the narrative book scenes and the musical numbers. The characters do not sing to each other in the same vein as their speaking, the songs become separate performances outside the narrative framework that comment on the action instead of furthering it. McPherson expands this idea by employing anachronistic folk tunes from 30+ years after the Depression that disassociate the commentary from the period and lend the musical performances a timeless quality. The use of Dylan’s music draws a line from Laine and company in the 1930s into the ‘60s and ‘70s folk scene and then to our contemporary time.
Girl from the North Country is full of characters beyond Elizabeth. McPherson has populated this corner of Duluth with myriad neighbors and strangers who pass through the flophouse revealing their own secrets and personal dramas. The abundance of characters is occasionally overwhelming, but McPherson wisely narrows the focus in key moments. In addition to Winningham, Luba Mason and Todd Almond are standouts as, respectively, a mother and son coping with his mental impairment. Almond, in particular, is given a moment equal to Winningham’s where, in Act Two, his glorious voice soars on Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” and his electric presence captivates the room.
The songs are so potent in Simon Hale’s arrangements and the design by Rae Smith and Mark Henderson is so atmospheric that I couldn’t help but consider if McPherson’s book scenes live up to everything happening around them. With the volume of characters, some of the plot threads end up frayed and unfulfilling. Particularly, when time is spent on Elizabeth’s son, Gene (Colton Ryan), the dramatic balloon deflates and takes some time to get blown up again. Gene is aimless and ambivalent, luxuries that are hard to believe he could have developed living under such limited circumstances. A duet with his off-again sweetheart, Kate (Caitlin Houlahan), falls flat almost immediately and then continues on for some time. Gene’s problems are not equal to the struggles occurring around him and do not warrant the stage time they are afforded.
The structural, tonal, and musical achievements of the production are thrilling, though. McPherson parallels some of the national struggles we are dealing with today with the struggles of the ‘30s in a way that does not rely on easy comparisons to the mortgage crisis, as most Depression-based narratives do. Instead, he looks at the relationships between the characters, how they treat each other based on race, on class, on mental capacity, on kindness. In telling these specific stories, he illuminates how our interactions repeat through time and uses Dylan’s lyrics to bring a call for humanity forward.