Publisher: Theatre Communications Group (November 28, 2017)



In so many ways,  reviewing the script of a play just as it sits on a printed page seems so disingenuous. To me, the script is a one-dimensional    slice of a collaborative project that includes the writer, director, actors, stage-hands etc. etc. who collectively bring the intended experience to life.

In the case of Girl from the North Country, while we get the dialogue from the playwright as well as the song lyrics from Bob Dylan woven throughout the play, we don’t get the music the characters sing or hear as the drama progresses. In short, the script, complete as it may be, can only hint at the flavor of the full production theatregoers might experience.

Girl from the North Country originated as a project proposed by Dylan himself to Irish playwright Mcpherson. It premiered at the Old Vic, London, in July 2017, in a production directed by McPherson. The story is set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 during the economic ravages of the Great Depression. As with many of the characters in Bob Dylan songs and reputedly Conor Mcpherson’s previous plays, we see a cast of characters essentially lost and lonely in a setting very reminiscent of Thornton Wilder or Eugene O’Neill.

The core of the cast is the Laine family, centered around Nick Laine who’s the owner of the boarding house where everyone congregates on a snowy Thanksgiving.  His wife Elizabeth is losing her mind, their daughter Marianne might or might not be pregnant, and their alcoholic, literary son Jean needs to find some sort of direction.

Roomers and transients include a preacher who’s more interested in selling Bibles than preaching from them, a former boxing champ on his way to Chicago, the town doctor, a widow, and a once prosperous couple with their mentally-stunted son. While the story is set on Thanksgiving, we see no celebratory feast.  Instead, the characters mill around and make sandwiches. 

All these people are representative types of a specific time and place, making Girl from the North Country a bit of an unusual period piece considering all the songs were composed in the ‘60s or later. Reading reviews of the play as performed in the Old Vic, I gather a musical arranger adapted the songs to fit the styles of the Depression. Another element readers of the text can’t appreciate.

Still, this hybrid of drama and music becomes something of an allegorical tale as all the themes should resonate with anyone from any time and any place. Especially those who once had something and then lost it, whether security, love, or earthly possessions.      I look forward to seeing the play, perhaps on stage or on PBS or the like, to fully take in all the characteristics of a unique production. Bear in mind: the Dylan songs provided McPherson inspiration and perhaps some ambiance and atmosphere, but the lyrics contribute mainly oblique commentary on the characters or circumstances.    This isn’t a musical where the songs are organic parts of the story nor are they an excuse to trot out a greatest hits retrospective a la Carole King. In fact, we hear very few popular tunes but rather hear bits and pieces from often very obscure Dylan deep-cuts.      After all, they’re there to support a story, not be the drama itself.