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“The Girl From the North Country”- unique and ambitious

“The Girl From the North Country” which is at Proctors in Schenectady through Sunday, is an ambitious, unique theater experience.

It’s a dark drama, a moody musical, and a thoughtful metaphor all rolled into one. It’s exactly what you should expect when the bleak vision of Irish playwright, Colin McPherson unites with the sometimes dark music of American folk artist/poet, Bob Dylan.

At first glance it might appear that playwright Colin McPherson takes the easy route by populating the work with stock figures. He doesn’t. The people in the play are meant to be representatives of those who live in a state of desperation.

There is the solitary man fighting the bank to hold onto his boarding house. He has a wife with dementia, an unmarried adopted Black daughter who is mysteriously pregnant, and a grown son who is unable to focus and get his life together.

Also, at the boarding-house are a bible-selling minister who lacks a congregation. He seems untrustworthy, as he travels with a young African-American ex-con.

There’s a couple with a tense marriage and an autistic son. For good measure there is an elderly man who wants to barter for the pregnant daughter’s hand in marriage. Making the group even more cluttered is a widow waiting for her inheritance - who happens to be the mistress of the man who owns the boarding house.

Yes, this is a complicated situation that is particularly hard on audiences accustomed to one plot, two and three character plays.

The first act of the two and a half hour show focuses more on the problems of the younger characters. It makes us wonder about everyone’s future.

Act two uses the issues of the mature characters to bring the present into context by showing us the past. Combined, the separate acts do not make for a completely satisfying whole.

One reason is the cast is so large it is difficult to emotionally invest in each character. Adding to the problem is individual actors must rely on establishing some broadly drawn quirks to establish a personality.

To say the least some choices are odd, especially in the case of the minister. But since the playwright also directed the production, so the choices must support his vision. Giving credit to McPherson’s direction, he establishes a great number of exquisite stage pictures throughout the evening.

The play is set at a boarding house in Duluth, MN in 1934. This is, of course, the perfect environment to emphasize the songs of Bob Dylan, who is the musical heir of Woody Guthrie.

Both men were masters at representing the displaced poor who exist in a semi-isolated society. His songs establish the nucleus of the play’s purpose. It attempts to show how life on earth survives through makeshift communities.

Though the play uses about 20 of Dylan’s songs - performed both in full-length and in snippets - this is not a typical juke box musical. Indeed, though many songs are familiar, there are a number of others that could be categorized as obscure. Even the familiar, “Like a Rolling Stone” takes on new meaning as told within the story.

Indeed, as a general rule, very few songs move the narrative along. Their effect is to offer insight to a character and, more important, support a mood the playwright has created.

The songs, whether in solos or in ensemble form, are offered with brilliance, power and insight. The performers are equally as eloquent when delivering the playwright’s thoughts in their individual monologues.

The production is unique in that this is a work about mood, not character. My guess is the playwright is trying to create a universe that is timeless.

The material evokes the sense of being written by mid-20th century American writers. You sense the attitude of O’Neill (“The Iceman Cometh”), Saroyan (“The Time of Your Life”) and especially the tone of Thornton Wilder.

Indeed, “The Girl From the North Country” can be seen as the dark side of “Our Town”. It includes the typical passages of life; birth, death, wisdom and strength of character versus moral weakness. In other words, life in Duluth, MN is the same as Grovers Corner, NH.

Too, this musical which takes place in the midst of The Great Depression in the United States could also be set during the potato famine in Ireland a century earlier.

Because of all these conundrums “The Girl From the North Country” is a remarkable piece of musical theater that, unfortunately, is fascinating without being totally satisfying.

Nonetheless, I’m very happy I saw it, and would do so again. It runs at Proctors in Schenectady through Sunday, For schedule and tickets go to atproctors.org or call 518-346-6204.

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