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Why Mare Winningham Breaks Your Heart in 'Girl From the North Country'

By: Sandy MacDonald
Date: Mar 05, 2020

The Tony nominee croons Bob Dylan tunes in her first Broadway musical

Although Mare Winnigham made her name in movies (a virgin crushing on a bad boy in St. Elmo's Fire, her Oscar-nominated performance as a folk singer in Georgia) and TV (recent credits include recurring roles on The Outsider, The Affair and American Horror Story), over the past decade she's been stealthily building up her New York stage résumé. After working Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, Playwrights Horizons and the Barrow Street Theatre, she made her Broadway debut in the 2013 revival of Picnic, followed by her Tony-nominated turn as the empathetic wife of a 1960s transvestite in Casa Valentina. Now she's back on Broadway in Girl From the North Country, a somber ensemble musical that weaves Bob Dylan tunes into a poetic evocation of life in a Minnesota boarding house during the Great Depression.

Written and directed by Conor McPherson (The Seafarer, Shining City), the musical transferred from The Public Theater, where Winningham first played the role of the boarding-house manager's wife, Elizabeth Laine, who's battling early onset dementia. Winningham's innately sweet face morphs from confusion to fury and back as she struggles to keep it together in a world that's falling apart. Ever-youthful at 60, Winningham chatted with TDF Stages about making her Broadway musical debut, her concurrent career as a singer-songwriter and why she adores TDF.

Sandy MacDonald: Although the story line remains unchanged from The Public, the show seems much richer now, more nuanced.

Mare Winningham: It has grown, yes—we've marinated! It's so nice to revisit such a masterful show and have the relationships continue to grow, and then add these wonderful new actors. That's the perfect combination: To have a family, but also to be seeing things with fresh eyes as we watch other people discover their parts and we make our adaptations around them.

MacDonald: Stephen Bogardus played your husband, Nick Laine, at The Public; Jay O. Sanders has taken over the role for Broadway. When he was first cast, I thought, how wonderful! Who wouldn't want to stay at his boarding house? But it seems like that character has taken a more menacing turn.

Winningham: I believe that Conor has always written Nick as somebody who is not allowed to sing because he doesn’t believe that he has a soul. And that is the heaviest thing that somebody can be burdened with. He even says it in the show. It's very sad.

MacDonald: And Jay is such a good singer, too!

Winningham: I know! For that character, the burden of trying to keep all these balls in the air and serving all these people and trying to plan a way out for everyone—for his kids, for his wife, for himself—it's just so desperate.

MacDonald: Even though you're just about to open, I gather McPherson is still doing some tweaking. Isn't that a bit unnerving?

Winningham: Conor is so light on his feet as a playwright! He'll sit behind the desk with a wonderful cat-that-ate-the-canary smile and just say, "Why don't you say this?" while we're in the middle of a scene—and then that will remain in the play. And I'm just delighted, because to me most of it is comedic, and that's wonderful—to add to this moving, emotional play. It's so important that we be ahead of the audience, and the comedy does that. It's the pushing-people-off-their-feet kind of comedy, which I just love.

MacDonald: We get plenty of surprises coming from your character, Elizabeth, because she has no filter.

Winningham: Yes! It's, "What is she going to say next?" The comedic aspect is balanced, of course, by this beautiful heaviness, because the songs are so much the soul of the piece. So while these humans are running around trying to change their fates, you know that the songs will open up and we'll see what's in their hearts and in their souls. And because Elizabeth is moving in and out of reality, she's the one character who can sort of hear things that are happening outside of the worldly realm. Sometimes she's alongside the audience, hearing and seeing people for who they are.


MacDonald: In some ways she's the most perceptive character: She's on to everybody. Often she seems to be sitting back, but she's smarter than anyone in the room.

Winningham: And I think Conor does it in a way that isn't cloying. I don't know that Elizabeth is perceptive. I just know she is hearing things! She has one foot in this world and one foot in some other world, where the songs are sung, and people's insides are spilling out. In general I think she's just not all there—as people would say, "not in her right mind." It's not a wrong mind! She's just in some other mind. It's very fun to play.

MacDonald: Did you research dementia or have firsthand experience observing it?

Winningham: Before the run at The Public, I made a number of visits to a memory care facility in Los Angeles. I sang for patients there, and it was very informative and also very freeing, because I realized that anything goes. There was no list of behaviors that I had to depict. A lot of them just think they're in a really nice hotel, and they have, like Elizabeth, a very unfiltered way of communicating. So I just concentrate on Conor's play, and who Elizabeth is in it. Conor threads her through the songs—like having her come out on "Slow Train" and just be there listening, and then eventually she ends up joining the ladies as a background vocalist. Her thoughts about wandering—putting on her scarf and her glasses and her purse and taking off—are a great active way of showing where she's at.

MacDonald: You did a few musicals Off Broadway—10 Million Miles at Atlantic Theater Company and Joan of Arc: Into the Fire at The Public—but this is your first musical on Broadway, and you lead some of the most powerful numbers in the show, notably "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Forever Young." People may not realize that before embarking on your acting career, you were pursuing a path as a singer-songwriter, and you've since put out four albums. Have you studied voice formally?

Winningham: I've had absolutely no training. The first time I ever met with a vocal teacher was on this show. Each of us gets a half an hour with this lovely woman once a week, and she focused on my breathing, which I asked for. I feel like I'm riding on the wings of eagles with this cast! All of them have a gift that is just so rare and wonderful. I bow down. I'm not undermining my own talent. I feel like I fit in this piece. Certain musicals I was made for, and this is certainly one of them.

MacDonald: We know you're a theatre performer. Are you also a theatregoer?

Winningham: Yes! And I love TDF so much for that. I grew up in Los Angeles and our drama club came to New York back in the '70s. Ever since that visit, I dreamt of coming here and living here and I finally moved here around 2007. And TDF has just been a huge part of my life. I have a girlfriend who also grew up in Los Angeles and she turned me on to TDF. We are grateful for all of the shows that we've been able to see over the years! TDF is such an incredible and beautiful service, providing theatre to people who might not be able to have that gift, and also making it easy for those of us who love to go to the theatre regularly. Seeing theatre is really my favorite hobby.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Sandy MacDonald is a theatre critic who contributes to Follow her at @sandymacdonald. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Mare Winningham in Girl From the North Country. Photos by Matthew Murphy.

Tickets are frequently available for Girl From the North Country at the TKTS Booths.

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Sandy MacDonald is a theatre critic and Drama Desk member currently contributing to New York Stage Review, among other outlets. Follow her at @sandymacdonald