by Michael Buzzelli
Things are sad in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, and getting sadder for the Laine family in Conor McPherson’s haunting “Girl From the North Country.”
Dr. Walker(Alan Ariano) steps up to the microphone and narrates the tale of the Laine family and their guests. It’s a brooding Irish playwright’s version of “Our Town.” Dr. Walker’s exposition is completely unnecessary, and while Aiano is very talented, his character is superfluous. His final summation at the end of the play is somewhere between maudlin and a real bummer.
Let’s get back to the Laine’s. The patriarch Gene (Ben Biggers) is running a dilapidated boarding home (think AirBnB with three square meals), and caring for his wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood), who is suffering from some sort of vague mental illness. Gene’s son, Nick (John Schiappa), is a drunken writer (Hemmingway without a publisher) and his adopted Black daughter Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie) is pregnant.
It’s already a lot, but their boarders have their problems, too.
Mr. Burke (David Benoit) and Mrs. Burke (Jill Van Velzer) are caring for their mentally challenged son, Elias (Aidan Wharton). The lovely widow, Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods) is waiting for her husband’s inheritance but has eyes for Gene.
More trouble comes to town when Mr. Scott (Matt Manuel) and the unscrupulous Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb) arrive into town.
All Conor McPherson projects (“Shining City,” “The Birds,” “The Seafarer” etc.) can be described as haunting, but in “Girl From North Country” the playwright turns to the jukebox and presses all the Bob Dylan buttons (taking all the quarters).
“The Girl From North Country” is the meat in between “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “My Fair Lady,” an unlikely combination for a sandwich. The play is brooding and atmospheric. It tackles issues such as unwed pregnancy, blackmail, bribery, murder, and mental illness. Unlike, “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the upcoming “My Fair Lady,” this story is not family-friendly.
“Girl From the North Country” would seem to make a better play than a musical. Perhaps even a PG-13 miniseries on Netflix or Max. It does have some grand music, though. It would be worth saving the musical numbers just to keep Woods and company singing “Pressing On,” an absolute showstopper (right where the show actually stops).
Keep your eye on Carla Woods. She was phenomenal.
While there are a ton of characters, every actor gets their moment in the sun. The actual sun never shines in this gloomy part of Duluth, except when Wharton’s Elias dresses in a white linen suit and sings his heart out toward the end of the second act.
Blood’s Elizabeth gives a heartrending performance as a woman in anguish but lights up the room when she sings. She also gets some of the best lines zinging straight to the truth in the most uncomfortable ways.
Manuel is charismatic and oozing charm all over the stage, and he sings magnificently.
The women team up for a few songs and they are all excellently rendered.
Webb’s Marlowe is deliciously evil. You will want to walk up on stage and smack him with a shovel. He’s terrifying and annoying, an unwelcome stranger with a pitch-black secret.
Conor McPherson loves a good ghost story, and there is an element of a ghost story here when Elizabeth proclaims, “I hear the cries of the girl in the hole.” In “Girl From the North Country,” every character is sort of a ghost marching toward their inevitable doom, but here they are alive, vibrant and filled with song. They will be, pardon the pun, forever young.
If you’re looking for something off-the-beaten-path, and you’re tired of the slap-happy silliness of the traditional musical, or you simply love the music of Bob Dylan, “Girl From the North Country” is the show for you.
“Girl From the North Country” runs from January 9 to 14 at the Benedum Center, Penn Avenue, and Seventh Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.