Trailing clouds of glory from runs at London’s Old Vic and on the West End, Conor McPherson’s Depression-era treatment of classic Bob Dylan material vividly transforms individual songs into an extended cohesive narrative about America adrift in hard times. In this production now playing at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, songs like “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle” feel as if they were written specifically for the Depression, while an inspired ensemble of actor-singers are transformed into the heroes of their own stories, as well as characters in the lives of others.
It was perceptive of McPherson (“The Weir,” “Shining City”) to set the songs in a seedy boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934. Rae Smith’s barely furnished set has the sad, beat-down look of a house that has seen better, happier days. Her costumes — in dark greens, muddy browns, muted prints — hang limply on the characters like ill-fitting hand-me-downs, weighing them down. (The ugly head scarves are the perfect image for depression.) Upstage, a quartet of instrumentalists perform in the tightly focused manner of musicians playing for survival.
For reasons unknown, the staging suggests that the lives of the boarders are being broadcast on some kind of radio show. Robert Joy is wisely cast as Dr. Walker, who assumes the narrative chores for this program; but far from clarifying matters, the framework only confuses scenes that play perfectly well as snippets of boardinghouse life.
Sober lighting by Mark Henderson bathes the stage in concealing brown shadows that are strangely soothing. Even in the gloom all eyes are drawn to Mare Winningham, haggard and haunting as Elizabeth Laine, the depressed wife of Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus, solid as a rock), who owns the boarding house. Elizabeth is showing signs of early-onset dementia, a condition conveyed with slowly dawning dread by Winningham. Nick is frantic. Their son, Gene, a would-be writer played with a streak of would-be-writer egotism by Colton Ryan, is too self-absorbed to feel any filial duty to either parent.
Some of Dylan’s songs are a poor fit for this highly specific setting. Although expressively sung by the soulful Jeannette Bayardelle, “Went to See the Gypsy” doesn’t suit the independent character of the happily widowed Mrs. Neilsen. And “Like a Rolling Stone” seems a cruel choice as a reference to Elizabeth’s dementia – if that is, indeed, what it’s meant to be. “Tight Connection to My Heart,” on the other hand, makes perfect sense when sung by Kimber Sprawl, in the character of Marianne, the Laines’ adopted daughter, who is yearning for love.
It may be a lost cause to try to fit every chosen song into a plot-worthy moment in the show. But that doesn’t invalidate McPherson’s insight that Dylan’s narrative lyrics, mainly written in the 1960s and 70s, express a sense of existential detachment, of longing for connection that reflect the uncertainties of 1930s America.
“Slow Train” could be a young man’s conflicted feelings about his future. Here, it’s the lament of a mysterious wandering man named Joe Scott, all coiled tension in Sydney James Harcourt’s fine performance. As the thoughts of someone who doesn’t anticipate having much of a future, the song conveys a sense of dread that wouldn’t be out of place during the Great Depression. As counterpoint, “License to Kill” drops broad hints about Joe’s fears of what might be “comin’ up around the bend.”
In the end, it’s too joyless an intellectual exercise to sit in the theater trying to match song lyrics to specific emotional moments on stage. Better to sit back and just enjoy the music — and credit McPherson with giving each song the gift of clarity. If not always apropos to their dramatic moments, the lyrics are clearly intelligible. And truth be told, Winningham’s thoughtful delivery of both “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young” is a revelation — a revelation of the poems Dylan meant them to be.