MANY OF US have an image in our minds of Dolly Levi, the irrepressible matchmaker in the musical "Hello, Dolly!" We generally remember a woman of sly manipulation and winking good humor who dons a red dress and boa in the musical's last act.

In "The Matchmaker," the 1954 Thornton Wilder play upon which "Hello, Dolly!" is based, you'll meet a softer Dolly. She's still a good-humored matchmaker, but she's more earnest -- an immigrant woman of a certain age struggling to make ends meet after the death of her husband, whom she dearly loved. And that last-act dress? You get the feeling it might not be the latest fashion.

Andrea Martin, who plays Dolly in the Ford's Theatre production of "The Matchmaker," has never seen the musical. If she had, Martin says, she probably couldn't have portrayed Dolly as she does. Though the play is a farce, the actress thinks it's important to invest Dolly with believable qualities. Martin projects a warmth and generosity on stage along with spunk and resourcefulness -- her goal, she says, is to play comedy with a heart.

"I admire Dolly," Martin said recently. "I did a lot of research on that time period in New York, and there was a big division of wealth -- some rich people, lots of poor people, not much of a middle class. It would have been very difficult for a woman on her own to survive, and I have to believe that's where Dolly's need for money comes from."

In the story, a wealthy, curmudgeonly Yonkers, N.Y., merchant named Horace Vandergelder (Jonathan Hadary) engages Dolly, the best friend of his late wife, to find a new spouse to keep house for him. Dolly, however, has Horace in mind for herself.

From the matchmaker's first entrance, when she arrives in Yonkers without enough money for the return train trip to New York City, to the speech delivered directly to the audience near the end of the play, Dolly argues that it's possible to have a second chance in life, if you'll take a risk. With every performance, the actress says, she tries to get deeper into this element of Dolly's character.

Martin won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in "My Favorite Year" in 1993 and played the aunt in the hit movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." She may be best known for her appearances on the "SCTV" comedy sketch series, for which she won two writing Emmys. But she's just turned down a big Broadway part, and hopes to do more plays that truly interest her. "My career has been in reverse," she says. "I did Broadway and film first, now I want to do plays, anywhere they're being produced."

Martin's unconventional career and evolving portrayal of Dolly give her a positive perspective on a play some see as dated. "The script may be a little naive, but I find it quaint and refreshing," she says.

Andrea Martin stars as the matchmaker Dolly Levi and Jonathan Hadary is Horace Vandergelder in Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker."