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Review: Girl from the North Country, at the Public Theater

In Girl from the North Country, now running at the Public Theater through December 23, a script by Irish playwright Conor MacPherson and Bob Dylan's extensive catalog of songs are gloriously combined to tell a story of suffering and mystery, still with some glimmers of hope.

Set in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, Girl from the North Country follows as group of people living together in a guesthouse during the Great Depression. The owner, Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), is in a massive amount of debt that he is struggling to find a way to repay, while his wife Elizabeth (the wonderful Mare Winningham) suffers from dementia, leaving her like a child. Their son, Gene (the heartbreaking Colton Ryan), is addicted to the bottle, while adopted daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl) is pregnant, though no one seems to quite know how.

Among the people renting out rooms are the Mr. and Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason), whose son Elias (Todd Almond) is fully grown in body, though remains with the mind of a child. Then there is Mrs. Neilsen (Jeanette Bayardelle), with whom Nick finds comfort due to his wife's condition.

The newest arrivals to the guesthouse are Joe Scott (the powerful Sydney James Harcourt) and Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu), both of whom manage to shake up the dynamics in the house. Also present are a few visitors, including Gene's on-and-off girlfriend Kate Draper (the equally heartbreaking Caitlin Houlahan), Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), who is courting Marianne at the behest of Nick, and the family doctor, Dr. Walker (Robert Joy), who also acts as narrator for parts of the story.

The cast embodies their roles as if they are part of themselves, and it makes for a hauntingly beautiful tale. And, of course, the singing. Rather than being used to push the plot along, the music acts as a reflection of what the characters are thinking. And it is incredibly gorgeous. "I Want You", sung by Gene (Ryan) and Kate (Houlahan) is the most reflective of their character's inner thoughts, though moments such as "Like a Rolling Stone", sung by Elizabeth (Winningham), and "Duquesne Whistle", sung by Elias (Almond) are musical theater masterpieces.

The simplistic moving set pieces create the different rooms of the guesthouse, and compliment the period appropriate costumes, both designed by Rae Smith. While the choreography is minimal, and Lucy Hind is credited as the Movement Director, it fits perfectly with the songs, especially when there actors playing the drums, tambourines, or using shakers.

The characters MacPherson has written feel incredibly real. They are human, heartbreaking, and achingly beautiful. His writing, combined with Dylan's timeless music, leave the audience thinking about what they are witnessing, and rooting for everyone on that stage, no matter the flaws they have. And though it is sometimes dark and saddening, it leaves you with a glimmer of hope, brought through the energy and soul with which cast sings the songs, bringing light to the stage. And what a light it is.

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