Conor McPherson’s play with music, set to the songs of Bob Dylan, tells the story of a collection of woebegone characters living in during the Great Depression.
Originally staged at London’s Old Vic in 2017, its plot revolves around the denizens of a boarding house in 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota. Every character is an archetype – the drunken writer, the pregnant teenager, the con artist, the morphine-addicted doctor.
The fine cast has little to hold onto, but Kimber Elayne Sprawl gives a fleet-footed, witty performance as the pregnant, self-determined Marianne, Austin Scott is quietly pained as a down-on-his-luck boxer, and Jeannette Bayardelle delightfully direct as a widow taking one last stab at happiness.
McPherson’s production orchestrates Bob Dylan songs with gospel and bluegrass inflections, invoking inexplicable nostalgia for the dark days of the Depression.
While the cast all sing beautifully, it’s never clear why certain characters take on particular numbers or even where they are when they break into song. McPherson’s production is garbled in its messaging. Sometimes he gathers the actors in front of microphones or has them play instruments like it’s a radio play, but the musical sequences have little connection to the narrative, which returns to a washed-out naturalism.
The way the show turns Hurricane, a protest song based on a real-life black man’s experience of racial injustice, into a drunken ensemble party number (while musically drowning out the black man singing it) is just one example of misaligned song, voice, and staging.
The production’s loosely-linked vignettes never form a coherent world and McPherson’s idea of America is unrecognisable; in its place, he’s created a confusing purgatory in which his literary ghosts wander.