Rock and Roll Book Club: Conor McPherson's Bob Dylan play 'Girl from the North Country'


Conor McPherson's 'Girl from the North Country.'
Conor McPherson's 'Girl from the North Country.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

You knew the Bob Dylan jukebox musical wasn't going to be another Mamma Mia! "Frothy" isn't the word you'd use to describe Dylan's songbook, nor is it a word you'd apply to Girl from the North Country, a play by Conor McPherson incorporating 17 of Dylan's songs. It premiered last year in London, where it's now moved to the West End. It's expected to eventually move to New York, but until then, those of us on this side of the Atlantic will have to content ourselves with reading the script, now published in book form.

Despite its title, the play isn't about Echo Helstrom. It is, however, set in the north country: Duluth, to be exact, circa 1934. A 50-something man named Nick runs a guesthouse that's on the verge of going under; his wife Elizabeth is suffering from early-onset dementia, but it comes and goes. Essentially, she becomes lucid when McPherson really wants to make a point.

Nick and Elizabeth have two adult children. Gene is an alcoholic aspiring writer, and Marianne is a young African-American woman the couple raised after she was abandoned at the guesthouse as an infant. Marianne's pregnant — whether the father is a human man or a ghost isn't entirely clear, but whoever he is, he's not in the picture. Nick is trying to marry her off to Perry, the local shoe repairman, who's in his 60s but...well, available. Perhaps not coincidentally, Perry also has some savings that could be invested in the dilapidated guesthouse.

An itinerant boxer named Scott could be a more attractive partner for Marianne, except that he's already married to a wife who ran off with another guy while he was doing time in Stillwater for a crime he didn't commit. Scott is also black, and yep, he does sing "Hurricane." (Never mind the New Jersey references.) Scott blows in the guesthouse door with a Bible salesman he chanced to meet, a man named Marlowe who won't take God's name in vain but isn't above betraying some of His principles. The guesthouse also accommodates the Burkes, a couple with an adult son who has an intellectual disability. Oh, and there's a widow who's having an affair with Nick.

The songs don't so much advance the story as reflect upon it. Many aren't sung in full: McPherson selects verses, and in some cases creates medleys. "Slow Train," for example, fades into "License to Kill." Elizabeth sings "Like a Rolling Stone" after we learn about the dark circumstances that forced the Burkes to leave their home. Gene and his ex Kate duet on "I Want You." Act two opens with "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," which segues into "Jokerman." An unexpected spirit breezes through singing "Duquesne Whistle," and everything wraps up with "Forever Young."

Eugenia Sestini, a writer based in London, recently saw the play and wrote a review for our website.

The story does not revolve around the songs, nor do the lyrics dictate the narrative; the two seem to be woven together to create a richer sense of time and place, they engage the audience and transport them to a faraway land. It is a time of uncertainty and inequality, of anxiety and loss. We sense the loneliness of the owners and guests at the boarding house. This is no cozy B&B — despite their physical proximity, the inhabitants are together but alone, wanting what they can't have and having what they don't want. Ultimately, they are in the same boat, fractured, standing on one leg, but refusing to give up. They carry on singing.

A soundtrack (below) lets you hear how the songs are transformed in the context of the play. Some songs, including "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Blind Willie McTell," are heard simply in instrumental versions — in some cases, playing on a radio in the background.

The script is full of local geographic references: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Brainerd. It all rings fairly true, except when characters say they're going "up" to the Twin Cities. The lake plays a role, and the setting must feel familiar to McPherson: an Irish writer whose work often includes working-class characters striving for a bit of magic. (In Minneapolis, the Jungle Theater has staged much of McPherson's work — including the plays Shining City, The Seafarer, and The Night Alive.)

For a story so stuffed with plots and subplots, the play on the page proves surprisingly absorbing, even more so if you listen to the music that goes with it. It demonstrates the truth of what McPherson writes in his introduction: "Dylan's songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time."

If you're looking for even more Dylan lyrics — but not all the lyrics — you can also pick up the newly-released paperback Bob Dylan: 100 Songs. Another new volume on the Dylan bookshelf: a petite hardcover containing his complete Nobel Lecture. No, it doesn't cite SparkNotes.

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