When Mare Winningham was growing up on the West Coast, she knew one day she would come to New York and do theatre. It was always on her mind throughout her Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated television and film career. But she wanted to raise her five children before moving to New York City. “I did calculate ‘How old will I be when the youngest turns 18 so that I can finally go to New York and pursue theatre?’” she says.
The time came in 2007. “I thought, ‘Well, this is kind of presumptuous of me to think that I’ll be able to just make this move,’” she says. Turns out she could.
Winningham's very first theatre audition resulted in her New York stage debut in 10 Million Miles, a small Off-Broadway musical at Atlantic Theater Company featuring the music of singer-songwriter Patty Griffin. Despite the Emmy Award, it was that first outing on the stage that had Winningham feeling like, “I’ve made it.”
Winningham’s stage career has continued to flourish. She’s since been nominated for two Tony Awards: One for the 2014 play Casa Valentina and again last season for the Bob Dylan-Conor McPherson musical Girl From the North Country.
But it’s the smaller works away from the splashy production numbers of Broadway that are the real draw for Winningham. “I see the Off-Broadway world as even more alluring and creative and satisfying,” she says.
Winningham is currently appearing in Classic Stage Company’s Off-Broadway revival of A Man of No Importance. The musical from book-writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens stars Jim Parsons as Alfie Byrne, a Dublin bus conductor who directs the amateur theatre group at his local church, specializing in the works of Oscar Wilde. Winningham plays his sister Lily who has put her own life on hold, taking care of Alfie as she waits for him to wed. Alfie’s production of Salome is the catalyst that reveals his love “that dare not speak its name” is not for the young woman playing the lead role, but rather his friend Robbie—a forbidden love in 1960s Ireland.
When Alfie propositions a man who has previously approached him at a pub, he is violently beaten. Though set 60 years ago, the musical remains strikingly relevant as 2022 has been a record year for anti-LGTBQIA+ legislation and hate crimes against the community continue to dominate the news.
“The themes of somebody feeling trapped and unable to be who they are, but then the parallel theme about theatre and friendship and the pursuit of art are so meaningful and touching,” says Winningham.
The actor shares that director John Doyle often spoke of his own religious upbringing as a gay man in Scotland. It was his love of theatre that provided a way out of oppression.
“I think he has molded Lily in this production as a stand-in for his mom and grandma,” says Winningham of her character. Lily doesn’t hide that she wishes for Alfie to marry. She is waiting for him to do so before she will accept the hand of her own beau, the butcher Carney (played by Thom Sesma). Similar to her brother, Lily suffers from her own brand of fear and repression: “She’s a nosy, pushy spinster who has never known love. She sings in ‘Burden of Life,’ ‘There’s probably three of us left in all Ireland.’ So we know she has no experience with this thing she is so bossy about,” says Winningham with a laugh.
Classic Stage Company is an intimate theatre, with the audience surrounding the stage on three sides. As with many Doyle productions, the some of the cast is also the orchestra and most are on stage at all times, watching the story each night as it happens. The journey the cast takes with Alfie each night is also one that the actors took with Doyle and Parsons in the rehearsal process. “John does a lot of excavation of emotional lives, and we did a lot of it with Alfie and with his [Doyle’s]. We were all privy to it, so we all felt very close with Alfie and Jim,” Winningham says.
She also admits that at the end of the play, the close-knit cast has a hard time “keeping it together” when Alfie returns to the theatre group saying, “The most thrilling words in the English language are these: Good morning, my dear friends.” For it is Alfie’s theatre group who ultimately show him compassion and love.
When Alfie’s sexuality is discovered, Lily at first questions how should could not have seen it, and she admonishes Alfie for never confiding in her. It is perhaps, though, her own denial of his manners (he was a solitary boy, he played with puppets) that kept him from opening up to her. “It’s much easier for us to deny that it exists in our families or our lives. She had to have known, and was willfully choosing not to know,” says Winningham of Lily.
A Man of No Importance is Winningham’s fourth musical in New York. A singer-songwriter herself, she’s released four CD’s and played her last live show at the Carlyle just before the pandemic shut everything down. But she never expected to do musicals. “I have a particular set of gifts, and I don’t think that I would serve most musicals with those particular limited gifts,” she says, obviously selling herself far too short.
In A Man of No Importance, Lily and Carney have a charming, classic Ahrens and Flaherty comedy duet, “Books” in which they lament that it must be Alfie's stacks of literature that’s given him “such queer and foreign ways.”
“I had to write them both [Ahrens and Flaherty] midway through rehearsal just to tell them that having their melodies and those lyrics running through my head all day is fine by me. And, in fact, it enriches my life,” says Winningham.
Winningham may not consider herself capable of belting an 11 o’clock number, but her folksy sound is perfectly tailored for the work she has done. “Girl From the North Country was my dream. I was never tired of it. I never wanted it to end,” she says. “So to have this come up a few months after Girl ended was like lightning striking twice.”
A Man of No Importance runs through December 18 at Classic Stage Company, leaving audience hoping it won’t be too long before lightning strikes again for Winningham.