Review: Midnight’s Broken Toll …. Girl from the North Country

Girl from the North Country, a musical adaptation of Bob Dylan’s songs by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson, has already appeared in London’s West End, Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, and on Broadway itself until the COVID pandemic led to its premature closing. It is now on its North American tour and runs through February 25 at the CIBC Theatre in the Loop.

Set in the city of Dylan’s birth, Duluth, Minnesota, Girl from the North Country features a large and marvelous cast of actors who can sing and singers who can act.

Nick and Elizabeth Laine run a shabby boarding house in Duluth during the height of the Great Depression. Nick (John Schiappa) inherited the house from his grandfather but we are told he has “no head for business.” Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood, who is terrific) suffers from early onset dementia although she has her share of lucid moments. They have two children: Gene (Ben Biggers) is a want-to-be writer and heavy drinker and Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie), is their adopted Black daughter. She is also pregnant but the identity of the father is a mystery. Dr. Walker (Alan Ariano), the Laines’ long-time physician, serves as the narrator.

To secure Marianne’s precarious future, the father tries to arrange a marriage of convenience with the local, and much older, widower-businessman, Mr. Perry (Jay Russell). Meanwhile, Nick has a relationship with an African American widow and boarder, Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods), who is waiting for her inheritance from her late husband to come through. Also staying are Mr. and Mrs. Burke (David Benoit and Jill Van Velzer) and their adult son, Elias (Aidan Wharton), who has the mind of a 4-year-old. One night, two strangers arrive hoping to receive shelter from a storm: a traveling Bible salesman and charlatan, Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb), and a boxer, Joseph Scott (Matt Manuel), a Black man sent to prison for another person’s crime.

Aidan Wharton as Elias. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

At times, McPherson offers a historical context for the story. “To say it wasn’t fashionable in Minnesota to bring up a black child in a white family in those days would be an understatement,” Dr. Walker offers. He then tells the true story of three African American men from the Robinson Circus troupe—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—who, in 1920, were wrongly accused of rape and assault by two white teens. They were taken to the working class Central Hillside neighborhood, and lynched after an angry mob held a mock trial. Dylan’s father, Abraham Zimmerman, was just 9 years old at the time and lived with his family several blocks away. (Dylan would later refer to the lynching in “Desolation Row.”)

Girl is a broken midwestern fable, its themes familiar to anyone who knows the work of McPherson and Dylan: Christian hypocrisy, the presence of evil, the failure to make meaningful connections. With its omniscient narrator, it is reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It even has echoes of Eugene O’Neill’s expansive family dramas. But perhaps the best parallel is to the dark mood of another midwestern writer, Sherwood Anderson, and his collection of fractured short stories, Winesburg, Ohio, which itself was turned into a musical at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2002, and which, like Girl, is also set in a rundown boarding house in a midwestern town.

In McPherson’s play, everyone has fallen on hard times in one way or another: physically, mentally, and financially. They are, to quote Dylan himself, “”drinkin’ from broken cup.” Some reveal their secrets (the accidental death of a younger sister who fell down a mining hole) while others guard them fearfully (we never know for sure who is the father of Marianne’s baby).

Girl features more than 20 reworked and rearranged versions of Dylan’s songs, mostly from albums released in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s: three from Street Legal, two each from Nashville Skyline, New Morning, and Saved, and one each from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes, Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Slow Train Comin’, Empire Burlesque, Infidels, Time Out of Mind, and Tempest.

The songs often segue into each other and, at times, also switch verses with each other. Other times they only appear as background instrumentation (“Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Lay Lady Lay”), It would be easy to miss the wistful title song completely since it is performed by back-up singers as Mr. Perry recites his monologue on mortality.

There are no direct parallels between the songs and the plot. Unlike in other musicals, the songs don’t move the story forward as much as they set a mood or are somehow thematically relevant. Even though the songs may have little to do with the goings-on, they gradually reveal details of the characters’ emotional lives. Only one song, “Hurricane”—about the false conviction of African American boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—comments specifically on the plot: the boxer, also African American, spent time in a penitentiary on trumped-up charges.

On several occasions, Dylan’s lyrics are slyly dropped into the dialogue. “Whatcha gonna do?” Nick asks Gene. “Suddenly write a masterpiece all of a sudden?”—a reference to Dylan’s “When I Tell My Masterpiece.” In “Highway 61 Revisited” Dylan sets the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Isaac into modern vernacular. At one point in the play, Elizabeth blurts out the song’s opening line, “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’”

Typical of a McPherson play, Girl is often cloaked in Christian imagery. During the reprise of “Jokerman,” a street scene of old Duluth is projected onto the screen where an ordinary telephone pole seems to miraculously turn into a cross, as if Jesus was paying for everyone’s sins.

Jill Van Velzer as Mrs. Burke. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

Showstoppers include Jennifer Blood’s moving rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” At first, it starts as a plaintive solo before the entire ensemble joins in. By that time Blood is swirling the microphone around like some kind of manic rock star. “Duquesne Whistle” also starts as a solo but ends as a white gospel stomp out of a tent revival meeting. The powerful drumming of Jill Van Velzer’s Mrs. Burke should also be mentioned.

Girl from the North Country is not for everyone. With its large cast and complicated story lines, it is sometimes difficult to follow. But its power builds slowly and surely, its humanity evident throughout. The evening culminates with Blood’s poignant “Forever Young,” which creates its own type of emotional wallop. As the stage lights went up, the words of another Dylan song, “Chimes of Freedom,” rang through the theater (The song begins, "Far between sundown's finish and midnight's broken toll . . . Tolling for . . . every hung-up person in the whole wide universe”). It seemed an appropriate choice to end the evening.

Girl From the North Country, presented by Broadway in Chicago, continues through February 25 at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission. For tickets and more information, see the website.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.