‘Girl From the North Country’ @ Proctors a trip worth taking

Time: Winter of 1934, with America in the grips of the Great Depression. Place: Duluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior. Setting: A boarding house run by Nick Laine. Show: “Girl From the North Country” at Proctors in Schenectady.

And the hook? The music and lyrics of Bob Dylan flowing throughout the production.

Nick Laine is struggling to keep his head barely above water, having turned the farmhouse that was his grandparents’ into a boarding house while at the same time dealing with a dysfunctional family: His wife, Elizabeth, is riddled with dementia, her erratic behavior swirling through the production.

The Laines have two children: son Gene, an aspiring writer who may or may not have any real talent and who resorts to calming his mind with an overabundance of alcohol; and an adopted daughter Marianne, who aside from being an African American in a white household, finds herself pregnant at 19 by a man she will not identify.

The cast of boarders includes a widow waiting for her husband’s estate to be settled so she can get her inheritance and move on with her life; a couple with a mentally disabled adult son who have lost everything, including their home; and a minister and a boxer who turn up in the middle of the night.

There is also an assortment of townspeople who move in and out of the action, which is all narrated by Dr. Walker, who relates the story to the audience through his eyes.

It all combines to make for a less-than-cheery setup. “North Country” is an amalgamation of good and bad, and serves to be both moving and thought-provoking. The first act generally leaves one cold. It’s hard to get in to the characters’ plights and to feel much of an attachment to them. But the second act ratchets up the story and allows the audience to no longer be observers of the action, instead feeling like part of the story.

“North Country” is summed up by a bit of discourse between two characters when one asks why the other is wasting a life here. The response? “I’ve got to waste it somewhere.” That might be the entire thrust of the show — a house, a town of broken people, simply marking time.

Writer and director Conor McPherson weaves a story that is probably not unusual for the era. Problem is, there are so many broken characters it is difficult to relate to any of them or to find sympathy or empathy for them.

Visually, the show is stunning. Rae Smith’s set and costume designs create a dark, brooding mood. Mark Henderson’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound design flesh out the ominous foreboding of the period.

Lucy Hind does an incredible job as the movement director, creating visually striking pastiches, painting pictures with the sets in conjunction with the performers.

Fans of Dylan will be in for a surprise as they hear the 22 songs. Classics “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Duquesne Whistle,” “Forever Young,” “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” and “Went to See the Gypsy,” to name but a few, have been reimagined and given a new and exciting life.

The cast of 17 has strong voices that reach to the back of theater with pathos and pain that resonates to the core. Sharae’ Moultrie as Marianne, Ashley D. Brooks as Mrs. Neilsen and Aidan Wharton as Elias have provided the production world-class voices and soaring vocals that rise above an already outstanding cast.

Jennifer Blood’s Elizabeth Laine is the star that never leaves your eye. She manages to go from insanity to moments of pure clarity as Nick’s wife. Her moments of anguish are so real, her comic moments so warmhearted and her singing so on point that she steals the light even when she is doing something so benign as sitting in a chair reacting to the action around her.

On the whole, “Girl From the North Country” is an interesting production, but audience members might not help but wonder whether it could have played better as a straight drama without the interruption or distraction of Dylan’s iconic playlist. Together, the story and songs form a unique two hours of theater. Open your mind and you might just find “North Country” a journey worth the time and effort to take.

“Girl From the North Country” runs through Sunday at Proctors in Schenectady. For information or tickets, visit atproctors.org or call the box office 518-346-6204.

Bill Kellert is a Nippertown contributor.

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