The season at the Public Theater in downtown NYC has begun with a starry bang. I’m not sure who is the biggest draw these days and nights in the East Village, Broadway and Screen star Glenn Close starring as the Mother of the Maid, or the iconic Bob Dylan, credited with the music and lyrics and the brilliant Conor McPherson, credited with the writing and direction of the new musical, Girl From the North Country. Both are attracting buzz and excitement in the lobby of the Public, battling it out for the better review. If it were a match made in big-named talent heaven, the Girl might edge out the Mother on overall style and substance, but the Mother may triumph on singular appeal and performance.
Following a sold out run at London’s Old Vic and a West End transfer, the astonishingly gifted Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer) along with the phenomenal Bob Dylan (Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, 2016) brings to the stage the achingly beautiful story of a band of frustrated and down-trodden souls struggling to make sense of their rooming house misery in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934. Utilizing Dylan’s inimitable songbook as the emotional core of the piece, the story floats out like a lyrical poem tinged with perfectly orchestrated music and songs, courtesy of music director, Marco Paguia (Broadway’s Everyday Rapture, SpongeBob…), orchestrations, arranger & musical supervisor Simon Hale (Broadway’s Finding Neverland), and music coordinator, Dean Sharenow (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), effortlessly and gently blending with the emotionally painted movement and dance by movement director Lucy Hind (RSC’s Miss Littlewood). The backdrop weighs heavy on the soul, even as love and devotion are wrapped along the sides, but as styled with warmth and compassion by all involved, epitomized by the kind thoughtful and caring Dr. Walker, embodied by the empathetic Robert Joy (Public’s Head of Passes) in a small but important role, the peace floats out to us, gently, like dust stirred up by the sweeping of an old wooden floor, dancing in the angled light from a window.
The Girl from the North Country is exactly as I thought it would be from the first visual; a bass laying on its side in a expanse of dark space, highlighted by a spot casually streaming in from a low angle. Filling out that dynamic tableau, there is an upright piano tucked into the side, and a drum set on the other, with old fashioned parlor lamps illuminating the cozy area. It feels folksy and exactly right, thanks to the thoughtful creation of scenic and costume designer Rae Smith (Lincoln Center’s War Horse), for a musical that sweeps us up as we watch the band and the cast of characters flow in from all directions. Trench coats and old fashioned hats adorn their frames as they make their way through the wet streets to the guest house of Nick Laine, played strongly by Stephen Bogardus (Broadway’s Bright Star) and his far-away but shrewdly observant wife, Elizabeth, portrayed dynamically by the always spectacular Mare Winningham (PH’s Rancho Viejo). Both are just trying to keep everyone alive another day, as the serve up stew to the forlorn. Elizabeth’s demented persona feels distracted and absent, obstinate but clear-eyed, especially when it comes to the efforts of Mrs. Neilson, portrayed smoothly by the fantastic Jeannette Bayardelle (Deaf West’s Big River) to help out with more than just chores around the house.
The highlight for me is when Joe Scott arrives late one night looking for a dry place to sleep, and finds himself doing battle in a fight that seems pointless and unneeded. Sydney James Harcourt (Broadway’s Hamilton) is powerfully appealing as the captivating Joe Scott, heroically taking center stage at the microphone and delivering a knock down performance with ever pivot. He’s majestic and intriguing, especially when saddled up to the complex and lost Marianne Laine, portrayed with grace and grit by Kimber Sprawl (Broadway’s A Bronx Tale). She’s the young daughter of the guest house owners who finds herself in a bit of trouble and in need of an escape. She’s layered and dynamic in her need, but solidly defiant, if she has any say in the matter, of not by being shoved into the arms of her father’s intended savior, the well-off old man, Mr. Perry, played to perfection by the subtle Tom Nelis (Broadway’s Indecent). Her brother, the equally troubled son of the owners, Gene, played laconically by the handsome Colton Ryan (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) has his focus clearly set on a bottle of whiskey but his eye on the desperate and torn Kate Draper, played sweetly in both style and voice by the lovely Caitlin Houlahan (Broadway’s Waitress). She’s making her escape on the arm of another man, all the way to Boston, but can’t quite wrap her head around leaving Gene.
How does it feel to want another so badly, sings the two, accentuating the song’s emotional core gloriously in front of a pair of old fashioned microphones, thanks to solid sound design by Simon Baker (Broadway/Old Vic’s Groundhog Day). They stand, breaking our hearts in moody pools of light, designed with impeccable clarity by Mark Henderson (Broadway’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses), and wind swept horizons. The smooth and gently soulful piece, filled to the brim with desperation and hopelessness, blends compassion with desire, especially when Winningham stunningly sings to be on her own. The rest watch patiently from the edges, as the cast of forlorn characters float around dishearteningly the songstress, reminiscent of the 1930’s dust belt of America that Rags Parkland spoke so sweetly of in his own futuristic folktale. The shady Reverend Marlowe, played with a con-man’s air by the wonderful David Pittu (Broadway’s The Front Page) will sell you a bible for $2 to find salvation, while systematically try to sell freedom for a great deal more. The ploy revolves most dynamically around the topic of simpleton Elias Burke, played spectacularly by Todd Almond (Public Works’ The Tempest) and his demeanor. He tugs at our sympathetic heart, like a slice out of Mice and Men, but it is in the frame of Marc Kudisch (Broadway’s 9 to 5) as his father, Mr. Burke who tries to protect him from the world that swirls around his boy. His red hot lush of a wife, the dynamic Luba Mason (York Theatre’s Unexpected Joy) adds another layer of frustrated love and pain, thrilling us all, especially when Mason gets behind that drum set and harnesses all the attention away from almost anyone else. The ensemble; Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, add to the landscape with their presence, raising the roof with illustrious dancing and emotive silhouettes, creating of piece of lustrous beauty and poetic emotionality. The music wraps us in sadness and warmth, all at the same time, ushering us into and out of something so mystically beautiful, that it is almost too difficult to pin down.
Glenn Close (Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard) though,is a whole other ball of mystical star power. As Isabelle Arc, the Mother of the Maid, she mesmerizes, forcing by pure majesty to make us pay attention to this simple non-majestic soul. I did not know what the term ‘the Maid’ referred to when I first accepted the press ticket, to be honest, until days before when I told another what I was seeing, and he asked, wisely, “is the play about Joan of Arc?” I must admit I was taken aback; that just by the title he knew, far more than I did (as I rarely read press releases before I see anything) about the fascinating new play by writer Jane Anderson (“The Wife” starring Glenn Close). I admitted quite honestly that I had no idea, but it starred Glenn friggin’ Close, so it was obvious that I would go, regardless what it was about, or what anyone had to say about it.
Now the story of Joan of Arc has never really captivated my heart or soul, to be frank. It seems to be a tale of passion and power that resonates with many. Last season, when I was heading to the MTC production of Shaw’s Saint Joan starring the Tony nominated actress Condola Rashad, I couldn’t help but ask the same question that I asked the night I saw the Mother. “Why oh why am I going to see this?” And the answer still evades me after watching another telling of the tale, this time, as directed with determination and drive by Matthew Penn (Barrington”s Typhoid Mary), Joan Arc (as she’s called here), played with some style and assurance by the game Grace Van Patten (TNG’s The Whirligig) is not the center, but the sidelined star of her own story. Playwright Anderson has shifted the focus onto her questioning and concerned mother, Isabelle, who guides us through her journey from the beginning of the visitations by St. Catherine (“She’s a lovely saint“) to the bitter tragic end.
The backdrop is magnificent, with scenic design by John Lee Beatty (Public’s Sweat), obvious but detailed costuming by Jane Greenwood (MTC’s The Little Foxes), dynamic lighting by Lap Chi Chu (Public’s Oedipus El Rey), and solid sound design by Alexander Sovronsky (Broadway’s Cyrano de Bergerac) that raises the visual to heavenly heights. And with extraordinary days ahead and miles to cover, the Mother of the Maid rightfully exclaims, “Aren’t I something“. Well, to be honest, the play’s a bit forced and casually written, somewhat similar to the much smarter and deeper Doll’s House, Part 2, in the way it blends a modern flair of language with characters we know from theatrical history. Kelley Curran (TFANA’s The Winter’s Tale) sparkles as Lady of the Court (a part normally played by Kate Jennings Grant), and she adds an extra layer of insight into a pretty dull 300 mile walk through the mud led by a magnetic and excited guide. But this leader has little to add to the journey above and beyond what we already know. She is pretty fun to watch and listen too though, making a hard trek a little lighter and more pleasant.
Dermot Crowley (Broadway’s The Weir) portrays her husband, Jacques Arc solidly, as a man who has a hard time wrapping his logical brain around almost anything besides his daily life on the farm. That doesn’t mean he isn’t wise and percise, especially when it comes to the spiritual explanations of Father Gilbert, played clearly by Daniel Pearce (Public’s Hamlet). It feels more and more like a game of wills and strategies, sword play for men who want to win regardless of the moral cost (sorta like the GOP). He uses the Church generously as armor for protection against any accusations of misinformation or misleading directions. Joan’s brother, Pierre, played heroically by the very willing Andrew Hovelson (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim) fluctuates as quick as a pendulum from torturing big brother to avid believer and support system. Basically he is the self-serving relative, armoring himself in whatever way suits his enlivened life style and heightens his own ambition.
I’m still not sure what the point of this version of Joannie’s tale is, as her mother is want to call her. We’ve seen it all before in Shaw’s play, and this telling, even with the lovely third person monologues that frame the piece, does little to broaden or deepen our experience of that flawed woman and saint. It takes itself as seriously as Joan did, and look where it got her. Like Close, she will be remembered as a Saint, and a Star, but the actual journey is painful slogging through the mud on a long journey to a place we’ve already been to before.