Mare Winningham, deep in the heart of Tennessee

Mare Winningham, deep in the heart of Tennessee
SITTING PRETTY: Actress Mare Winningham will be appearing in the Old Globe Theatre production of Tennessee Williams classic, "The Glass Menegerie." (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times)
"MAYBE I shouldn't say this, but so often during the last 30 years, you're trying to make something better than it is," actress Mare Winningham confides. "You're trying to find richness where there isn't any. You're trying to find complexity where there is none. You're trying to make something more than it is."

Sitting on a sun-splashed bench in a bright, blooming garden near the Old Globe's Balboa Park rehearsal hall, she smiles and concludes, "Here, you don't have to do that. It actually makes it easier that Amanda is so multifaceted. It's a welcome relief."

Winningham assumes the iconic role of Amanda Wingfield in a new production of "The Glass Menagerie" at the Old Globe this week. While Tennessee Williams was writing the play, his first success, he also struggled to free himself from less significant -- though better-paid -- Hollywood work.

Living across from Muscle Beach in Venice, he confided to his journal that he was working "on something abominable -- a script for Lana Turner." That same June day in 1943, he wrote to his agent, Audrey Wood: "I feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver," further deriding the MGM project as an attempt to make "a celluloid brassiere" for the buxom star.

Nonetheless, he was pleased by his progress on the stage version of "The Gentleman Caller" and a theatrical treatment of a second story, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass." Fused, the two would become "The Glass Menagerie" with, he hoped, "the character of Amanda to sustain it."

Winningham's guileless face is well-known from women-in-jeopardy roles in TV movies, from variants of her level-headed Wendy in the '80s brat-packer "St. Elmo's Fire," and from a recurring role on "Grey's Anatomy." Emmy Awards for "George Wallace" and "Amber Waves," a featured-actress Oscar nomination for "Georgia," and many lesser awards lace her résumé. But she has appeared onstage only a half-dozen times since agent Meyer Mishkin saw her perform as Maria (opposite Kevin Spacey) in a high school production of "The Sound of Music" and signed her up. Mishkin steered her toward made-for-TV movie leads. She knew then that her career "would not be sex-driven or glamour-driven. I really was the girl-next-door type."

When Winningham began having children, that TV-movie career proved family-friendly -- intense spurts of work followed by longer periods of domesticity in Northern California, and few theatrical roles, even after her marriage to television technical advisor William Mapel ended in 1994 and she returned to Los Angeles two years later.

Her most recent stage appearances in the L.A. area were in Warren Leight's "Side Man " (2001) at the Pasadena Playhouse and Wendy Graf's "Lessons" (2005) in West Hollywood. With last year's surprise success off-Broadway in the Patty Griffin-scored musical "10 Million Miles" and this month's classic Southern matriarch role, Winningham is poised to realize dreams deferred by the demands of raising her five children. "I spent a lot of time longing and dreaming and waiting to be able to get my mouth and my mind around some great roles," she says, "and finally, the last kid went off to college and I'm getting to do it."

The making of Amanda

WILLIAMS created the characters in "The Glass Menagerie" with such poetic fullness and specificity that all four (writer Tom; his emotionally fragile sister, Laura; their mother, Amanda; and gentleman caller Jim) have become cultural signposts, not to mention subjects of countless high school essays and targets of satiric send-ups.

Still, since the New York premiere in 1945, the actress playing Amanda has commanded top billing. Many have attempted Laurette Taylor's triumphant ascent to the role's craggy emotional peaks -- Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton (twice on Broadway), Jessica Lange. Few -- if they returned intact to tell the tale -- have had careers boosted by the part.

Taylor was past 60 when she left retirement and alcoholism behind to triumph as Amanda. Julie Haydon, who played the original Laura, was 70 when she returned to Broadway in 1980 in the role. Brown-eyed, sandy-haired Winningham looks younger than her 48 years and knew better about the age thing. When the Globe called, she says, "I bet then and there that I was the right age -- that she should be late 40s."

That Globe call came because of outgoing co-artistic director Jerry Patch; his admiration for Winningham's craft and charisma goes way back. Patch first saw her in 1984 in the American premiere of Howard Brenton's "The Genius" at the Mark Taper Forum.

"I think she's one of those actresses -- Kathy Bates and Laurie Metcalf are two others -- who are so rigorous, intelligent, inspired and daring in their work that they have an authority and drive on stage that audiences respond to," Patch says.

"Menagerie" director Joe Calarco loved Winningham's performance in the multiple singing-actor roles of "10 Million Miles" at the Atlantic Theater. He also knew she would pair well with Michelle Federer (the original Nessarose in "Wicked"), whom he cast as Laura. Remarkably, Winningham had never worked onstage in New York and, despite three recordings of her own country-inflected music, had never appeared professionally in a musical until she nailed the character-driven songs of "10 Million Miles."

Winningham prepped for Amanda in three stages. She digs through her purse and pulls out a dog-eared book and a half-dozen photographs. "I decided to start nice and easy, with the Depression," she says, describing the Wingfield family's struggles in St. Louis. The survivor pushing for her children is one facet Winningham is polishing. To explore the Southern charmer in Amanda -- the "great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place" -- Winningham took a road trip. She flew to Chattanooga, Tenn., then drove through Alabama and Mississippi. Because the play is Williams' "most personal and most painful," she says, and because Amanda's happiest days (and those of Williams' mother, Edwina) were spent in Port Gibson, Miss., that became the actress' destination: "That's where she saw all the gentlemen callers. That's her reference point."

Some experiences proved "cry-worthy," Winningham says, spreading out photos of the rambling house in which Edwina Dakin Williams grew up. "Just what happened to me walking down Church Street in Port Gibson, being under the foliage of the same trees where she stood, knowing that Williams was allowing his mother to express the longing in her heart through Amanda -- it just filled me up." Her final prep came in meeting collaborators at the Globe. "I find that group-nurturing effort on a character so moving. You feel how every one of the backstage folk is helping you shape your approach to the character. It's sculptural, and it's touching."

Winningham grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where her father taught at Cal State Northridge. She was obsessed with music and planned "to make money being a recording artist while acting on stage." Instead, she made money acting on television, although she "never stopped doing" her music.

A recent recording project meshed her strong Jewish beliefs (she converted to Judaism in 2003) with her songwriting skills. She says she hadn't fully embraced the country label until she met and jammed with Tim Crouch, a mandolin, fiddle and guitar player. "Tim was just so mind-bogglingly talented, and at the end of a bluegrass weekend in a town near where I was shooting, he told me he thought I was a country singer." She sent him demos of her Jewish-themed folk music and within months recorded "Refuge Rock Sublime" with him and stand-up bass player Doug Driesel. Last year, Crouch joined Winningham for a gig at Joe's Pub at New York's Public Theater.

Strumming her guitar or indulging Amanda's nostalgic monologues, Winningham is one Valley girl who feels "there's something about the South that I get, something that is in my blood."