The 2009 movie “Precious,” about a destitute black teenager, was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and won two. It got great reviews, and turned its lead, Gabourey Sidibe, into a TV star. “Precious” also had its detractors, however. They called it “poverty porn,” because the movie subjected its heroine to a wide variety of abuses, including morbid obesity and incest.
Something similar is going on in the theater, only different. “Flyover porn” is too strong, so let’s call it “country pulp fiction.” After engagements in London and Off Broadway’s Public Theater, the musical “Girl From the North Country” opened Thursday at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. It features 20 songs by Bob Dylan that have nothing to do with the lurid Depression-era melodrama written by Conor McPherson, who hails from Dublin. The story’s connection to the legendary songwriter hinges entirely on the show’s setting, a boarding house in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. The result could be titled “Not So Grand Hotel” or “Really Hot L Duluth.”
McPherson’s writing owes much more to William Inge than either Lanford Wilson or vintage MGM, although the abandoned baby left in somebody’s luggage does bring to mind several weepers of the 1930s and ’40s.
The Inge tropes are so thick in McPherson’s Duluth boarding house that this property should be condemned. There are no fewer than two unwed mothers (Jeannette Bayardelle and Kimber Elayne Sprawl), a folksy country doctor (Robert Joy) who distributes barbiturates, a dreamer-loser husband (Marc Kudisch, giving a tour de force performance) whose sexually frustrated wife (Luba Mason) is addicted to the good doctor’s pills to help her care for their sweet but occasionally violent mentally challenged adult son (Todd Almond), an ex-con boxer-hunk (Austin Scott) with a heart of gold, and, of course, a young writer (Colton Ryan) whose talents will be squandered if he doesn’t escape small-town America. It’s almost a relief when a possible murder (or suicide or accident) takes place not in the boarding house but a nearby lake. Where McPherson really outdoes Inge, besides making “North Country” so fertile with scandal, is his creation of the Crazy Female Sage.
Mare Winningham plays Elizabeth Laine, and Elizabeth is such a Mare Winningham role that we know after one minute of stage time that this comfy-as-an-old-rocking-chair woman isn’t really nuts but an oracle who merely exhibits, but doesn’t suffer from, the last stages of Alzheimer’s.
Elizabeth’s husband, Nick (Jay O. Sanders), works tirelessly to run the boarding house but has time to romance and impregnate one of the tenants (Bayardelle). Nick makes a big deal out of Elizabeth needing to be spoon-fed very slowly, otherwise she’ll choke. But moments later, we watch as Elizabeth walks, drinks and dances just fine. Elizabeth also has no problem speaking all sorts of charming (and anachronistic) four-letter words that endear her to everyone when she isn’t wielding a butcher’s knife or a loaded pistol. Nick says Elizabeth doesn’t understand what’s being said about her, but, of course, she does understand, because the playwright is speaking directly through her.
Pulling this story together is the job of the country doctor who narrates “North Country.” The use of a narrator often means that a screenplay is in trouble. That goes double for a play or musical, not that this doctor is much help in the clarity department.
In one long digression, the character delivers Nick’s backstory on how he came to Duluth; the journey had something to do with his little sister falling down a taconite hole. The Midwest is just rife with lurking taconite holes. At play’s end, the doctor gives us a quick wrap-up of what happens to all the characters, but admits that some of these events happened after his own death.
I had to laugh out loud when Doc mentioned that the young writer moved “down to New York City.” As someone who grew up in Minnesota and Iowa, I never heard of anyone going “down to New York City.” I also never heard anyone refer to a boarding house as a “guest house,” which in this part of the country is something else entirely. Soldiers during World War II popularized the F-word, and it remained verboten in Elizabeth and Nick Laine’s world for years to come. Unknown to me is that great American holiday known as Thanksgiving Eve in which a lot of people gather to dance, get drunk, load up on prescription drugs and watch fireworks. And while we’re on the subject of bogus theatrics, many people living between New York and California do not twang. In fact, the people of Iowa and Minnesota speak with the opposite of a twang. It’s a hard, flat accent that turns a word like “wash” into “worsh.” In the “North Country” cast, only Kudisch manages this sound when he speaks as well as sings.
McPherson also puts a ridiculous #MeToo moment in his play. The “girl” of the title is Elizabeth and Nick’s adopted black teenage daughter, Marianne (Sprawl), who is pregnant. When elderly Mr. Perry (Tom Nellis) proposes marriage despite her condition, Marianne calls this old white man a “predator.” (Compared to all the F-bombs, “predator” may be the show’s most glaring anachronism.) It’s a real applause line, but the moment trivializes the virulent white racism of the era.
McPherson’s script directs that Mr. Perry defend himself “aggressively,” which is a woeful understatement regarding what would have happened to this black woman in 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota, a town infamous for its lynchings only a decade earlier. Marianne would have been tarred and feathered, or worse, for calling any white person a “predator.” McPherson also radically distorts the way an unwed pregnant teenager, even a white girl, would have been treated in 1930s Minnesota. Instead of being treated as a social pariah, Marianne in “North Country” is a mere financial inconvenience to her adoptive family.
McPherson calls his book for this musical a “play,” which is apt. The songs aren’t so much integrated into the plot as they are dropped. McPherson’s script offers the following stage direction: “We encounter a theatre where a production of this play is to be broadcast.”
This play-within-a-radio-production is not clear from McPherson’s staging. Sometimes the actors rely on body mics to project their singing voices. More often they wield a large standing microphone, the kind Frank Sinatra so famously fondled at the beginning of his career.
The greater problem is that Dylan’s lyrics have an authentic specificity that resist McPherson’s ersatz picture of Depression-era America. Even with an original score, songs don’t always have to move the story forward. They can present a character’s state of mind or be used to create a mood, but each song in the “North Country” simply stops the story.
In one respect, that’s fine. It’s great to hear 20 Dylan songs being sung and sung well, despite all the twanging. The voices here are superb, and McPherson’s staging is most effective when he’s using his large cast as back-up singers. Especially striking is Mark Henderson’s lighting design during the musical numbers. But often I had to try to forget the story to enjoy the music. Most bizarre: When a defeated Elizabeth and Nick tell their distraught son that they’ve lost the “guest house” and are about to leave Duluth, a few bars from “Lay, Lady, Lay” are played. In my head, I found myself singing “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed,” while in front of me a family’s life had just imploded.
In an interview, McPherson noted, “We found that the more the songs had nothing to do with what was happening, the better it fit.”