‘Million’ Mare March

I'd walk a million miles for one of her smiles, sure — but I'd walk "10 Million Miles" for one of her frowns — those comical, upside-down, clown-caked put-upon pouts. And for those more serious sad and searing facial strains at the edge of happiness, where the lips serve as a tightrope of time and tears tugging for a time share of the heart.

Mare Winningham offers one of the winningest portrayals now on any New York stage, on or off-Broadway, where she's off and running at the Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater, in "10 Million Miles," a refreshing road warrior of a musical about the world-weary and wary, and their detoured dreams.

"Million" Mare march: There's not one role that can contain the wonderful Winningham, which is why her take on "the women" — an amalgam of emaciated and punctured-balloon dreamers with pie-in-the-sky reaches that leave them covered in clouded lives of crumbs instead — is grouped in greatness.

Call it all a Musical Mileage Plus, in which the Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning actress/recording star soars like she's never soared before — which says quite a bit, considering the acclaimed jet-stream whooshing her to wondrous heights over an incredible career.

It's been a Jewish jet-stream of late, which has the recording star with the seraphic style reaching for the Stars of David; the early "brat pack" member of "St. Elmo's Fire" has evolved into a member of the minyan of the "Brucha Pack," in which she's paid her dues dutifully and delightedly, converting to Judaism five years ago.

And if there's a song in her heart, it's now a Hebrew one: What have you done to my song, Mare? She's made it even better, taking Jewish customs and concerns and infusing them with a voice that country-cries out for a hearing.

Hear it all on "Refuge Rock Sublime," a CD that sees deity and demands of mundane life in a Jewish-world kind of way. Her own compositions (like "A Convert Jig") and those of others get jiggy with all that Jewish music could be.

Climb "The Ladder," sip of "The Bitter & the Sweet" (Naomi Shemer's "Al Kol Ele") and be sated with the sublime of what her country/rock bluesy refuge of an album offers. For, very much like the two main characters of "10 Million Miles," Duane (Matthew Morrison) and Molly (Irene Molloy), Winningham has won her self back; her journey, however, is a Jewish one, Mare's miles measured in mitzvot, the trip a treasure of Torah treats.

And the lessons are lifelong, says the California-raised Winningham, who composed "The Convert Jig" as a talmudic tuneful tip of the kipah to Rabbi Neal Weinberg, her tallis talisman, the man who served as mentor for her studies at the University of Judaism, since renamed American Jewish University, out L.A. way.

It's all been a way of seeking an understanding of life and finding sense in the struggle, which is why Winningham decided to seek out Judaism on her own.

So, how the chell are you, Mare?

"I'm still working on that," she laughs at giving the guttural "ch" a chai-five. But then she's working at it 9 to 5 — actually, 9 to 3 — a full-time student, learning the language of the ages under the aegis of a New York Hebrew academy, where she gives much cred and acclaim to Judith Thenzer, her instructor.

It's been a catholic career of accomplishments for the Catholic-born actress who, without question, has a full schedule now of classes and stage craft. Night, Mare … too much to do?

"Well," she confides, "I used to watch David Letterman every night, but just can't anymore."

Okay, Dave, take it away: "Top 10 Reasons Why Mare Can't Watch You Now," Reason Number One: "Too busy studying her Hebrew," cracks up Winningham.

The Right Questions
Unquestionably, Judaism offers not all the answers, avers the actress, but all the right questions. "One of the many things that drew me to Judaism is its opportunity and the encouragement to question life, and the chance to pass things down along through the ages, to learn with others."

She has learned from the best; indeed, it was at an 80th-birthday party for legendary actor/singer Theodore Bikel ("I was invited by Craig Taubman, the go-to guy for Jewish music," and whose company released her CD) that made her latest album seem such a lyrical choice. "He's an inspirational man," she says of Bikel.

But a country/rock/bluegrass CD of Jewish tunes? What is this — "Hee-Oy!"

"There's more to it than a joke," she says of her serious intent to provide a "new way into Jewish music, exploring country music with Jewish themes."

And if that St. Elmo's fire has settled in her soul, it's an ember to embrace. Who knew that one day a fan could log on to "Mare Winningham" and find kindling and kinder for Lag B'Omer?

And while it's been said that her interest was fanned by being an aficionado of a Joseph Campbell show on religion, her conversion was a change for the better not solely — and soulfully — just because of that. "Judaism has always been a significant part of my life; I grew up among many Jewish friends, going to their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I lit candles at my best friend's Bat Mitzvah, went to seders, Shabbat services — these were all significant.

"I have a dear, dear friend who converted, and I asked her what effect it had on her. 'Every time I did a ritual,' she told me, 'I felt better.' "

And what could be better than that in life, asks Winningham? Certainly not the time, she believes, spent as an atheist, which "was just a tiny little space in my life; I consider that a time when I was resolutely secular."

Resolved to keep Shabbat, pushing atheism to the shoals for shul, she's also gotten the hechsher from her kids.

"At first, it was a shock to them, sure," she allows. "But they're all young adults now, and it's proved a great forum and dialogue that is wonderful between a child and a parent."

And, somehow, her lighting candles lit a spark under their tucheses. "I thought I'll keep Shabbat and the kids won't come, but, surprisingly, they did, and brought other people, their friends."

And why not, she wants to know? After all, as a cook, Winningham isn't exactly chopped liver. "It's a great meal," she jokes of the lure. "But, more deeply, teenagers like to talk about life, and Judaism asks very complex questions that can't be reduced to 'all ya need is love.' "

All she needs is what she's got. And her kids understand that: "I feel [my conversion] has influenced then; they have continued showing an interest in Torah and challenging themselves, and have come to shul a couple of times. They're now in their 20s, still developing, ever changing."

Much like their Mom, who, at 48, has converted her life perspective, too, wishing l'chaim to l'change. "I remember when I first fell in love with Judaism, and, oddly, I was sad because I felt, why hadn't I found it earlier?"

Same can be asked of any audiences unfamiliar with her sweet, sad soulfully searing voice that treats a song's scales to a warm bath by the hearth of home.

And there, on stage in "10 Million Miles," the music of the night penned by Patty Griffin reminds one that artistry is Mare Winningham's most winning number, her bread and butter.

Off stage, too. "I shouldn't brag," she says sheepishly, "and I try to be humble."

But … buttered challah, anyone? The twist: "I make a mean challah," says the actress. "Not to brag, but it's quite an accomplishment."


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