The first time Mare Winningham earned a Tony Award nomination, it was for a production of the play Casa Valentina, which ran on Broadway for roughly two months (not including previews) in 2014. This year, the veteran actress—also a two-time Emmy Award winner, an Oscar nominee, and an accomplished singer/songwriter—is a contender for her heart-wrenching performance in Girl From the North Country, a musical she began working on back in 2018, when it opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater.
“I’ve never been in anything for this sustained a period,” Winningham notes. “For me, three or four months seemed long. And it’s still a great joy in my life to come to work. I used to love singing in the choir at school, and I feel the same way here—harmonizing with this cast, sharing our voices.”
Granted, there have been pauses in the production history of Girl, which weaves Bob Dylan’s beloved songs into a Depression-era story by the acclaimed playwright Conor McPherson. The Broadway incarnation had been officially open for only a week when the COVID shutdown struck in March 2020.
“We opened on a Thursday to these beautiful reviews, then recorded the cast album that Monday, our day off,” Winningham recalls. “By the following Thursday, Broadway was closed.” Performances resumed in the fall of 2021, but the production was forced to close in January when cases of the virus surged again. The show “opened for the third time,” Winningham quips, in April, and is now set to run through June 19.
Through all the stops and starts that preceded the past few months, Winningham and her fellow cast members “stuck together in our social bubble,” she says—texting, making music videos, and, when it was safe, even gathering for parties that Winningham threw with her husband, actor Anthony Edwards, at their home in Connecticut. “Our producers were the ones who kept saying, ‘We’re coming back, we promise.’”
Their resolve was acknowledged with seven Tony nominations in all, including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. McPherson was also recognized for his direction, as was Simon Hale for the soulful orchestrations he provided for Dylan’s music. Simon Baker and Jeannette Bayardelle respectively earned nods in the categories of sound design and performance by a featured actress in a musical.
Winningham made the leading-actress cut for her searing portrait of a woman helping her husband run a boarding house that becomes a refuge for luckless souls—men and women in emotional, financial, and legal distress—all the while enduring her own struggle with early-onset dementia. “The sense of failure and desperation is palpable with these characters,” she says, “even though each one is different.”
The actress credits McPherson for advising his cast members not to wallow in pathos. “Conor would tell us, ‘I don’t want to see or hear you take a moment to express sentimentality about anything you’re going through. You’re just trying to get through the night.’ He said that the songs in this piece are really God; they’re our souls crying out, and they’ll take care of everything for us. That was a wonderful, freeing note.”
The question endures, Winningham allows, “of how does a play people might think of as bleak or sad function on a Broadway stage? People cry at the end of this play—but, you know, people talk about wanting to have a feel-good moment, and I don’t know that crying isn’t feeling good. Sometimes that’s what feels good, to grab the hand of the person next to you and share tears. … It’s like when you hear a great sad song and you need that space.”
Edwards has become one of Girl From the North Country’s many fans. “He’s seen the show umpteen times,” Winningham notes—which came in handy earlier this month, when several cast members contracted COVID, leaving essentially no one to play the role of local physician Dr. Walker. When McPherson called from Ireland to suggest that Edwards step in, Winningham recalls, “I thought he was joking. Tony was up in Connecticut, which is at least two hours away, and it was already 2 p.m. But Tony is very generous—he was in a car within 10 minutes. He wanted to thank the cast for lifting him up, and it allowed us to get through the weekend.”
Spending more time with family will be Winningham’s top priority once Girl From the North Country ends its run. “I’m dying to get out West, to California and Oregon, to see all my children and grandchildren,” she says. Long-term goals include doing more theater in New York: “It’s where I’m happiest. And I’d love to work with Tony again.”
For now, though, Girl From the North Country’s leading lady is focused on savoring the final weeks of a journey that has been uniquely fulfilling. “I’m such a Dylan freak,” Winningham says, “and I never tire of singing these songs, or the arrangements that got Simon Hale so rightfully nominated.” She notes that “Like a Rolling Stone,” one of the classics she gets to sing, was deemed the greatest rock song of all time by the magazine Rolling Stone; “Forever Young,” her other showcase, is “the perfect prayer of a song,” she adds.
“I still get little butterflies before I sing them, which is good,” Winningham notes. “I’ve been pretty lucky.”
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