Mining Bob Dylan’s unrivaled songbook – even if he’d never written a tune beyond the 20 or so included in Off Broadway’s Girl From The North Country, his contribution to popular music would be assured – and wandering his spiritual map of a mythic Americana that conforms to no historical boundaries but feels undeniably true to the bone, Conor McPherson’s radiant musical is as eccentric and unclassifiable as any fellow traveler of Dylan should be.
A remarkable piece of theater that made its London premiere last year, Girl opens tonight at the Public Theater with an impeccable cast including Mare Winningham (The Affair, American Horror Story) and Stephen Bogardus (Falsettos, TV’s The Blacklist). At times so lovely – as when a pair of young, broken-up lovers duet on a newly mournful version of the once sprightly I Want You – Girl might have you wishing for some sort of theatrical replay mechanism.
No mind, though – another such moment will be along soon enough.
Set in a Duluth boarding house around Thanksgiving 1934, as the Great Depression transforms the nation into a landscape of John Steinbeck graveyard ghosts, Girl funnels Dylan’s hardscrabble essence – one of his essences, anyway, the one that both mourns and glorifies what’s slipped away – into something fresh and vitalizing.
Actually, the boarding house is a sort of set within a set – McPherson (The Weir) loosely frames the action within the context of a ’30s-era radio show, with the characters sometimes singing into big, old-fashioned microphones and dancing in unison.
Gathering at the boarding house are any number of lost souls, dead-enders and down-on-their-luck folks who’ve seen much better days. The house belongs to Nick Laine (Bogardus) and his mentally deteriorating wife Elizabeth (Winningham), or rather, it once belonged to them. The bank is about to foreclose, and the once happy homestead, where the Laines raised their now alcoholic son Gene (Colton Ryan) and informally adopted African American daughter, the maybe-pregnant Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), has been turned into a rooms-for-let place offering shelter to those drifting through Duluth and life.
They include: a widow whose affair with Nick seems a last chance at happiness for both; a failed businessman, his wife and their grown son who has the mind of a child; and, late to the collection, a scheming preacher and a one-time boxing champ.
Also in the mix: an elderly shoe salesman who has offered to marry the in-a-bind Marianne; Gene’s ex-girlfriend; and a kindly, morphine-addicted doctor who hands out the feel-good medicine much too freely when he’s not narrating directly to the audience, a la Our Town.
(The cast, giving one of the best ensemble performances in recent memory, also includes Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Sydney James Harcourt, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, and David Pittu.)
With one exception, the household and its visitors treat one another with care and gentleness, as if recognizing the oasis they’ve created. But that one exception, who attempts to blackmail the businessman over a crime his mentally disabled son most likely committed (think Of Mice and Men), sets off actions that bring all the characters’ tragedies into focus.
The Dylan songs – culled from his entire career to date and sung by the uniformly excellent cast – don’t so much unfold the narrative as convey mood and characters’ interiors. The selections reach back to Dylan’s breakthrough days – Winningham knocks 1965’s “Like A Rolling Stone” out of the park – through his born-again era (“Slow Train”) and to latter-day entries like 2012’s “Duquesne Whistle.” Along the way are ’70s classics “Idiot Wind,” “Hurricane” and “Forever Young,” as well as relative obscurities like “Tight Connection To My Heart” from 1985’s Empire Burlesque.
By the musical’s end, we’ll know what happened to the characters as the Depression came to its end, who survived it, who didn’t and who were consumed by other world events. Dylan once sang “you ain’t goin’ nowhere,” and he could well have been foreshadowing the forlorn cases we meet in Girl From The North Country. Wherever they’re going, McPherson seems to add, they and untold numbers like them were here, and are remembered.