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On Her Mind

Janet Orsi

Georgia peach: Mare Winningham in her Oscar-nominated 1995 role.

'Georgia' star Mare Winningham tunes into Sonoma

By David Templeton

Mare Winningham peers out from behind the ancient, musty, 20-foot-high, red velvet curtain that veils the Sebastiani Theatre's equally antiquated movie-screen. She's inspecting, checking things out. "Roger," the Oscar-nominated, Sonoma-based act-ress/singer teases. She steps into the light spilling onto the wooden stage where proprietor Roger Rhoten is waiting. "Roger, you've really got to get a new curtain up here. This thing's just shot!"

"It's on the list," he chuckles, sounding like a businessman with a very long list.

At stage center, turning to face the rows of empty, darkened seats, she notices the banner stretching across the doorway: Mare Winningham in Concert. "Nice job, Roger," she commends, adding, "God! I hope someone actually shows up for this thing."

This "thing" is a benefit for the lovely but cash-strapped Sebastiani, the 63-year-old downtown Sonoma landmark that Rhoten has spent years steadfastly developing into a community center for the arts, presenting everything from the annual local children's production of the Nutcracker to showings of little-seen art films and reissues of classics.

"The Sebastiani is a treasure," Winningham offers fervently, explaining her motivation for volunteering to do the upcoming musical performances with her band consisting of local musicians, all of whom perform with folk-rocker John Wesley Harding.

Winningham's passion for the Sebastiani began when she relocated to Sonoma several years ago from the Plumas County ranch where she lived a simple, isolated life far from the Hollywood spotlight. She became an ardent fan, as much of the whimsical, soft-spoken Rhoten (who is known to perform magic tricks on stage before the shows) as of the theater itself. Learning that the theater often operates at a loss, she volunteered to help out, offering to bring her band to the Sebastiani. "Roger shouldn't be worrying about how to make ends meet," she says. "He should be worried about fitting in all the programming he can."

Winningham's own aforementioned worries appear to be for naught: tickets are selling briskly, evidence that plenty of folks want to hear Mare Winningham sing and help the theater rebound from adversity.

Winningham's own acting career has done some impressive rebounding of its own in the past year. In Georgia, she portrayed a famous and beloved folksinger in a problematic relationship with her less talented, spectacularly self-destructive sister Sadie, played ferociously by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Barbara Turner, Leigh's mother, wrote the screenplay. That riveting, unsettling 1995 movie earned Winningham an Oscar nomination (the Academy Award went instead to Mira Sorvino) and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress in an independently produced film.

The performance by Winningham, known mainly for her sympathetic portrayals of resolute yet vulnerable people, was a stunner, partly for the stark, emotionally closed invulnerability of her character, and partly for the magnificent sweetness and purity of her clear and haunting singing voice.

Georgia marked the first time since singing in the bathtub in Paul Simon's 1980 movie One Trick Pony (her motion picture debut) that Winningham, the star of numerous big-screen and television films (St. Elmo's Fire, The Thorn Birds, Amber Waves, Turner and Hooch, The War, Wyatt Earp), had the opportunity to demonstrate her considerable musical abilities on film. "I didn't know you could sing" are words she's heard often since Georgia's release, a comment she enjoys though she's been singing like that all of her life.

And not just in the bath-tub. Winningham has toured with intellectual folk-rocker John Wesley Harding, has opened for legendary Celtic folkie Richard Thompson, and has performed for almost 10 years with her own band. She writes her own songs, two of which were used in the film, and she's recorded a striking, hard-to-find album, the folk-tinged What Might Be, released on the now-defunct Bay Cities Records label.

Unlike the character of Georgia, who repeatedly states that she didn't seek fame as a musician, Winningham has worked hard at her music over the years, sandwiching gigs in between acting assignments and family time (she and her husband, Bill, have five children). In various interviews she's given since doing Georgia, Winningham has openly admitted that she'd like nothing more than wide success as a singer and a fat recording contract with a major label to boot.

So far, though, her wishes have not materialized. The seemingly no-brainer task of putting out a Georgia soundtrack album became lost in a legal thicket following the bankruptcy of the company that financed the film. And for now at least, Winningham remains an un-signed talent.

Winningham doesn't miss the irony of having played a famous musician when most people who know of her are not even aware she can sing. "At the time it bothered me," she says. "It wasn't altogether easy to make the decision to do it. It's like being a painter and working very hard and want-ing to be true to your paintings, and then playing the part of a painter and paying a lot of people to behave as if you were a painter. It actually made me a little edgy.

"Maybe, if I hadn't been working so hard on my music, I could have done it without a second thought. I could have enjoyed it more and relished it. But, that's not how it was for me."

When Oscar nominations rolled around this year, Winningham found herself in an uncomfortable position: She was nominated, for the first time, yet Jennifer Jason Leigh--a friend of Winningham's since they attended summer camp together as teens--was absent from the list, despite having received the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. "I felt incredibly honored and touched to be nominated," Winningham admits. "I was floored, actually. But it was hard to be separated from Jennifer, because she was the heart and soul of that film.

"While we were making the movie, I thought not only that she would get a nomination, but that she would win. I saw the kind of work she was doing. In my mind she will always be the greatest performance of that year, and a lot of other people thought so, too.

"Meryl Streep grabbed me at the Academy Awards," she adds, eyes widening in wonder. "She said, 'Jennifer should be here!' and I said, 'I know!'"

The Independent Spirit Awards, which honor work done in films made outside of the Hollywood system, were a different story. Leigh was nominated as well as Winningham, along with Ulu Grossbard, the film's director. Winningham ended up taking Best Supporting Actress honors. "I was glad I won," she says softly, "because I got to get up there on that stage and look at Jennifer and say, 'I will support you any day!' I truly feel it was a privilege to support her in that role. She was the whirling dervish of that movie. She was the center of the film. What a thing to support!"

Support. It seems to be emerging as the theme of the day. As we sit in this memorabilia-filled lobby (the immense stuffed teddy bear reminds Winningham of Roger Ebert), the conversation returns to this weekend's benefit concert. "I trust Roger," she smiles. "His sensibilities are attuned to what is great about creative opportunity. If he had more money, he'd just keep upgrading the theater. There'd be a better stage and the ballerinas would have a better time, and a better sound system so the bands would have a better time. There'd be more opportunities to hire people to help with children's theater programs.

"People should support him," she rallies. "They should support this theater!" She pauses, laughing. "So I'll show up with my band, and if people turn up to see us, we'll make this an annual thing. And hopefully we'll make a chunk of money." She stands up, smiling, glancing about for Rhoten.

"And then," she adds, loudly, "I want to see a brand-new curtain in this place! OK, Roger?"

Mare Winningham will perform Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6, at 8 p.m., at the Sebastiani Theatre, on the Plaza in Sonoma. Tickets are $15. 996-9756.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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