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'Girl From the North Country' review: Depression era-Bob Dylan hybrid defies convention

Mare Winningham and Stephen Bogardus star in Conor

Mare Winningham and Stephen Bogardus star in Conor McPherson's play "Girl from the North Country," which celebrates Bob Dylan's music and lyrics. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Girl from the North Country"

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO Tickets, from $95, publictheater.org, 212-967-7555

BOTTOM LINE  Part emotionally wrenching drama, part celebratory concert of Bob Dylan music. 

  The lonely, desolate souls whiling away their lives at a run-down Minnesota boarding house are on their own, with no direction home, completely unknown. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Bob Dylan will recognize the lyrics to one of his most enduring hits. But when “Like a Rolling Stone” is sung in “Girl from the North Country,” the Conor McPherson play now at the Public Theater, you hear things you never heard before.

  Approached by Dylan to create a piece of theater using his music, McPherson has come up with a gripping play that defies categorization. It’s certainly not a jukebox musical, and while Dylan’s life is ripe for dramatic exploration, McPherson went in a different direction, creating a hybrid — part emotionally wrenching drama, part celebratory concert of Dylan songs, from revered classics to rarely heard.

   McPherson, who also directs, sets the story in a Duluth boarding house in 1934 during the Great Depression, seven years before Dylan would be born there. The residents gather in the humble parlor (set by Rae Smith) to celebrate Thanksgiving as best they can. The beleaguered owner Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus) struggles despite mounting financial burdens to keep things running for the residents, while caring for his wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), in the early stages of dementia, their pregnant adopted daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), and angry son (Colton Ryan). When two newcomers arrive — boxer Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt) and Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu) — the tenuous equilibrium is irreparably upset. 

    McPherson, an Irish writer known for spiritual works like “The Weir,” leaves plot points intentionally ambiguous, so while his words are often as poetic as Dylan’s (the songwriter won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature), the dramatic portion of the piece is ultimately unsatisfying. But when the players step away from the action to sing — everyone but Nick, who never joins the song — the emotions of these characters are laid bare. 

   Joe sings "Hurricane," Dylan’s protest song about wrongfully convicted prizefighter Rubin Carter, with deep fervor; and the bluesy "Duquesne Whistle" becomes a painful reminder of what might have been when performed by mentally challenged Elias Burke (Todd Almond), returning as a ghost after his mysterious death. With stunning new arrangements by Simon Hale, the music gives the play plenty to justify its hot-ticket status (a virtual sellout, even after three extensions). 

    So faced with her bleak life, and her husband's obvious relationship with one of the boarders, Elizabeth can do little but vocalize her lament. When she sings "how does it feel to be on your own . . . a complete unknown,"  that rolling stone is crushing.

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