by Lynn on October 7, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Conor McPherson

Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Designed by Rae Smith

Lighting by Mark Henderson

Sound by Simon Baker

Cast: Daniel Bailey

Colin Bates

Katie Brayben

Anna-Jane Casey

Nicholle Cherrie

David Ganly

Simon Gordon

Steffan Harri

David Haydn

Rachel John

Sidney Kean

Finbar Lynch

Donald Sage Mackay

Gloria Obianyo

Ferdy Roberts

Wendy Somerville

Gemma Sutton

Shaq Taylor

Alan Vicary

Conor McPherson’s homage to the resilience of people in the Depression in 1934 using Bob Dylan’s music to make the story resonate.

The Story. It’s 1934. The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s home town but seven years before he was born (1941). Nick and Elizabeth Laine own a boarding house and times are very tough. The bank will foreclose on the boarding house in a few weeks if Nick can’t find the money to pay. He has his hands full trying to take care of his wife Elizabeth who has dementia. She is unpredictable, sometimes violent, stubborn and willful. She’s also watchful and knowing. Their son Gene is a failed writer and unemployed. They have an ‘adopted’ daughter Marianne they have raised. She was left in a suitcase years before by some passersby who stayed at the boarding house. Marianne is pregnant by a man who works on the boats and left. Nick is having an affair with a woman who is staying at the boarding house. There is a steady flow of people in and out of the place: Dr. Walker tends to Elizabeth; Reverend Marlowe sells bibles and a line of baloney to unsuspecting folks; Joe Scott is a quiet man with a past; Mr. Perry comes bearing flowers for Marianne and a proposition initiated by Nick; and Mr. and Mrs. Burke and their adult developmentally challenged son Elias think of better times.  They are all trying to get through the day, trying to make a buck, trying to survive.

The Production and comment.  This is not a show of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. Nor is it a jukebox musical in which Dylan’s songs are slotted into the narrative to comment on or progress the story. Rather, writer-director Conor McPherson presents Girl From the North Country as a radio play within a play. Dr. Walker (a laid-back, thoughtful Ferdy Roberts) speaks into a microphone and gives us the background of the story and who the characters are. As the play progresses he will comment on what has happened and will happen.

The show is a play with music rather than a musical. McPherson has meticulously selected the songs from Dylan’s whole catalogue that will add to the atmosphere or mood of a scene or a moment. Characters interact with each other during the play but generally come forward and either sing in front of an upright microphone or just face the audience and sing the songs. Often during a song the chorus is upstage silhouetted in muted shades of blue-grayish light. The “look” of the scenes and sound of the singing is exquisite. Kudos to set designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Mark Henderson.

For example, Gloria Obianyo plays Marianne as a somber, quiet woman who knows she’s there just to work and help out. Her life is slipping by. The whole mood and sense of her situation is realized in her moving, heart-squeezing singing of “Has Anyone Seen My Love.” It’s a song of longing that sums up a life that never really got started.

Gene Laine (a touching Colin Bates) is stunned when Katherine Draper, (sensitively played by Gemma Sutton) a woman he loves, is moving away to marry someone else. You get a true sense of the ache of the situation for both of them when they face each other, bathed in soft white light and sing “I Want You.” The longing and desperation of wanting someone ‘so bad’ oozes out of the song because of the quietly desperate way Bates and Sutton sing it.

Elizabeth Laine, as played by Katie Brayben is skittish and lost in her own world in which she almost never looks anyone in the eye. Elizabeth is a scary character because you never know if she will attack someone or give a perceptive remark. She knows what’s going on in that household. But when she sings you are never in doubt of the meaning of the song or point of the moment. She sings “Like a Rolling Stone” with fearlessness. And when you least expect it she can break your heart. At the end of the show, when it looks like despair will win, Elizabeth sits on a bench facing the audience. Nick her husband (a compassionate Donald Sage Mackay) sits behind her in a chair, looking forlorn, his arms on the table in front of him. Then Katie Brayben as Elizabeth begins singing a haunting version of “Forever Young” full of love, kindness and forgiveness. As she sings it her left arm reaches back and she cups Nick’s hand in hers and holds it for the whole song. It is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Conor McPherson’s direction is almost cinematic. Projections are illuminated on the back wall as if they are large slides, revealing a vista of Duluth or the countryside or a telephone pole that looks like a cross, (there are a lot of religious references in the play). Scenes overlap with one ending as one begins. Relationships are established in an unobtrusive way.

McPherson’s characterizations are spare but clear. We certainly get a keen sense of what it was like for a black man in America in the 1930s or anytime for that matter.

But at its heart, Girl From the North Country is a play about decent people for the most part (except for Reverend Marlowe–a wonderfully shady Finbar Lynch) who are just trying to get by. Nick always has a cup of coffee for any visitor to his door. There is always a plate of food that can be served to a stranger. He is saved from making a terrible decision by Elizabeth. They are devoted to each other. Strangers offer those in need a job and a place to stay.

Girl From the North Country is beautifully performed and produced. Don’t go expecting a concert of Bob Dylan’s best hits. But go ready to be moved, challenged, and to listen to words of two masters, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan.

Presented by Mirvish Productions.

Opened: Oct. 6, 2019.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2019.

Running Time:  2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission.

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