A moving connection to the mystical in two Conor McPherson plays

A moving connection to the mystical in two Conor McPherson plays

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You can often count on an otherworldly twist in the work of Irish dramatist Conor McPherson. That rule holds gloriously true in two productions in the D.C. area.

In both “Girl From the North Country,” a Bob Dylan songbook musical at the Kennedy Center, and “The Seafarer,” a dark comedy at Round House Theatre, hardscrabble, real-world lives stake out the foreground. Yet, in both works, apparitions convey an captivating broader vision.

In “Girl From the North Country” (2017), the music delivers the haunting. Sure, a couple of on- or offstage ghosts visit this story about the lonely, yearning residents of a Depression-era Minnesota boardinghouse. But the more powerful spirits are the images in the Dylan songs, which McPherson repurposed for this musical.

The songs relate obliquely, rather than obviously, to the story. And since the lyrics also teem with Dylan’s poetically elliptical images and personalities, the musical numbers zoom out to a more sweeping vista, where rolling stones and watchtowers eerily rub shoulders with this story’s underdogs and oddballs.

Those underdogs and oddballs are a striking bunch in this touring edition of the McPherson-directed production, which ended its Broadway run in 2022. At the center of the narrative, John Schiappa reveals the scarred soul of Nick Laine, proprietor of the on-the-skids boardinghouse. As his adopted daughter, Marianne, the golden-voiced Sharaé Moultrie aces the wistful number “Tight Connection to My Heart” and tempers girlishness with brooding depth. With hard stares and shocking outbursts, Kelly McCormick is splendidly feisty as Nick’s wife, Elizabeth, who has dementia. (Jennifer Blood usually plays the role.)

David Benoit and Jill Van Velzer, as the hard-up Mr. and Mrs. Burke, also thrillingly take turns on drums, supplementing the onstage band.

Matt Manuel sharply defines the wary ex-convict Joe Scott, and Alan Ariano is moving as the reserved Dr. Walker, who might be diagnosing his entire world when he says, “Pain comes in all kinds. Physical, spiritual. Indescribable.”

Some of that pain echoes through a piercingly sad “I Want You” — sung by Nick’s son, Gene (Ben Biggers), and his former girlfriend, Kate (Chiara Trentalange) — that exemplifies the show’s reinvention of the Dylan sound. No wonder orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor Simon Hale won the 2022 Tony Award for best orchestrations: Defamiliarizing the tunes through tempo, timbre and texture, the music adds to a sense of mystery.

In a visual correlative, Rembrandt-caliber shadows often pool onstage, thanks to Mark Henderson’s lighting. Rae Smith, who designed the atmospheric costumes, also devised the spare scenic design, which includes panels depicting drab corridors and outdoor scenes.

A bleak milieu lands differently in “The Seafarer” at Round House. Ryan Rilette directs this exhilarating production of the 2006 play, about modern rapscallions boozing in a Dublin-area house where a Christmas card game takes a supernatural turn.

A marvelous cast and terrific designers give rich texture to the characters’ seedy world: Bickering. Frustrated mutterings over card hands. A snowballing pile of beer cans. Hilarious and suspenseful by turns, these touches pull us into an engrossing world of disorder and mystical potential.

End of carousel

Giving the story an emotional center, Chris Genebach reveals the vulnerability of Sharky, a self-disgusted ne’er-do-well. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh deftly captures the slickness of Nicky, who prides himself on owning a Versace jacket. Michael Glenn brings a comic touch to the hapless Ivan, while Marcus Kyd lends just the right poise to Mr. Lockhart.

And Marty Lodge is superb as Sharky’s blind brother, Richard, a frail but ornery figure who huddles in a decrepit armchair, belittling his sibling in a gravelly voice.

Andrew R. Cohen designed the pitch-perfect set: a messy living room where water-damaged wallpaper speaks of cash-flow problems and domestic inertia. Kenny Neal’s wuthering-wind sound design hints at the wider world and mystical stakes.

The setting becomes a foil for a tantalizing promise of redemption. When cosmic grace glimmers in “The Seafarer,” the shady context amplifies its gleam.

Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson; music and lyrics, Bob Dylan. Music director, Wiley DeWeese; movement director, Lucy Hind; sound design, Simon Baker; music coordinator, Dean Sharenow. With Jay Russell, Jeremy Webb, Aidan Wharton, Carla Woods and others. 2½ hours. Tickets: $49-$179. Through Dec. 31 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.

The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Ryan Rilette; costume design, Ivania Stack; lighting, Max Doolittle; fight choreographer, Casey Kaleba; properties coordinator, Andrea “Dre” Moore; cards consultant, Ryan Phillips. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets: $47-$94 (subject to change). Through Dec. 31 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. RoundHouseTheatre.org.

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