Beautiful and haunting Girl from the North Country is as unique as it is compelling

Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Conor McPherson’s The Girl From the North Country is not a typical jukebox musical, even though its songs are all taken from the oeuvre of Bob Dylan. For one thing, it is not a Hit Parade: though there are a few songs here that will be recognizable even to a casual listener such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Forever Young,” “I Want You,” “All Along the Watchtower,” etc, most of them are deeper cuts or reworked to become even more like interior monologues than they were. But McPherson is not so much structuring a story that can utilize them as he is penning a compelling montage of characters who might have jumped right out of a Dylan song and then using the Nobel laureate’s music as a kind of haunting underscoring to their sad lives. And that makes Girl From the North Country a strikingly singular musical, one that is darkly moving and stridently honest about the failures of its characters while maintaining humorous and mysterious possibilities.

Nothing about this musical is easy, certainly not the mid-1930s Duluth, Minnesota setting in which not a soul escapes the pressure of the Depression. The action takes place in a dilapidated boarding house run by Gene Laine (Ben Biggers), which makes for a convenient location in which to see a cross-section of people who are either at the end of their ropes or pretty close to it. Gene is trying to hold things together but struggling to deal with a wife, Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood), who has been struck by dementia. (Things here are often unexpected, so naturally Elizabeth is the source of most of the show’s humor as she lives out what once was called a “second childhood.”)

The Laines have two children, Nick (John Schiappa) and Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie). Nick is a wannabe writer who spends more time drinking than writing, while Marianne (the titular “Girl”) is their adopted Black daughter, a genuine and sweet young woman whose enigmatic pregnancy—she insists that she does not know how it happened; could it be something inexplicable?—is a catalyst for much of the plot movement as Gene tries desperately to find a suitor for her and the baby so she won’t end up out in the harsh Minnesota cold when, as is inevitable, the boarding house goes under.

The potential husband Gene has settled on is Mr. Perry (Jay Russell), a man in his 70s whose financial security is not enough to assuage Marianne’s distaste for matching with someone so old. Mr. Perry seems at first to be a purely comic creation, but McPherson is a better writer than that: we eventually see him as yet another victim of the dark times in which he is living.

The man that Marianne likes is a boxer named Joe (Matt Manuel) who blows into town one night with a sketchy preacher/Bible salesman (Jeremy Webb), who is so obviously the antagonist here that one would be excused for thinking Gene should just kick him out right away. Webb does a wonderful job infusing his character with sinister and unreadable motives, while Manuel’s Joe (who also is mysterious) feels from the start to be more on the level. (That a young woman named Marianne, puzzlingly pregnant, ends up traveling to places she has never been with a man named Joe is a Biblical allusion that is hard to miss.)

Adding to this melange is a blowhard named Burke (David Benoit) and his family, which includes a grown son who is physically strong but mentally a child (Aidan Wharton); a young woman (Chiara Trentalange) who is interested in Gene’s ne’er-do-well son; and a married woman (Carla Woods) in whom Gene has developed an interest. (Woods, with her beautiful singing voice, takes the lead in several of the songs.)

This is an extremely lovely musical, with staging that invites us to drink in its beauty. The Dylan songs are often transformed in tone to create a kind of sonic tapestry to match the visuals. (If the lyrics were not so embedded in my mind, it might have taken me a while to recognize “Like a Rolling Stone,” for instance, which begins as an elegiac ode to a broken life before settling into its familiar rhythms, and it did take me a bit to recognize “Forever Young.”) Most often, the members of the ensemble join in the choir-like singing, elevating the songs to an almost religious experience even though this is obviously folk music. McPherson also shows himself to be a fine director, keeping multiple plotlines clear even when dialogue overlaps and music volume threatens to overwhelm as a result of the natural chaos that envelops the boarding house.

Nothing is really resolved in The Girl From the North Country, but how could it be? Most of these characters, despite their problems, have too much of their journeys remaining. For two hours, though, McPherson invites us to walk in their shoes, feel what they feel, and understand their joys and struggles. This is not any kind of typical musical. It’s a show that demands much from its audience and rewards them with a kind of visual poetry that will stay with them long after they leave.

The Girl From the North Country is now playing at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, through February 25. Performance times vary; check Broadway in Chicago’s website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

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