“I feel like I’m an actress in orbit,” confessed Nan Martin, who’s been juggling dual theatrical tasks playing two different mothers: in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” (just closed at South Coast Repertory) and--come Thursday--in the Los Angeles Theatre Center production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”

“I didn’t plan it this way,” she added hurriedly. “I wouldn’t be that dumb. If I had my druthers, I’d take a month off in between. But in both cases, the properties were signed up for those times. And Bush (Bill Bushnell, who’s directing) said, ‘You can work it out.’ And I really love the play, so I said, ‘Yes, sure. I can do it. . . . ‘ “

But at what price?

Martin sighed. “I was thinking the other day, ‘There is no Nan.’ There is either Hallie (‘Buried Child’) or Kate Keller (‘All My Sons’)--or somebody who’s catatonic, riding in a car. (For the length of the South Coast run, Martin kept an apartment in Costa Mesa and was shuttled into town for daily rehearsals at LATC.)


“The other day, I was walking to the theater at South Coast. It was a beautiful, sunny day and there were kids playing basketball, guys carrying surfboards. And I went into the theater--so dark and cool--and thought, ‘I’m like a mole going into this little dark hole.’

“You see, actors are supposed to be bringing life to the stage. So we have to be really careful or we turn into the equivalent of beef jerky--dried out, dehydrated. We become something that’s sort of the essence of life, but is not life.”

Actually, although she ended up enjoying the “Child” experience, Martin was initially reluctant to do the play at all. “But my 15-year-old son said, ‘C'mon, Mom, you have to do a Sam Shepard.’ So I read all the books about him, read his plays. He’s obviously a very creative person. But I think he writes better parts for men; his women are blurred, diffused.

“Most writers give you a firm outline of the characters’ lives, motivation, commitment. With Shepard, it’s like you’re a jazz musician doing a riff. You can take it in any direction you want, which is odd but also sort of wonderful.”

In contrast, her character in “Sons” (a post-World War II drama about a munitions maker and his family) is much more clearly defined: “She likes to help people, buoy them, give them confidence. Most people are rather cynical: ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ Then there are those who have sublime faith. Kate is one.”

In her own life, the actress has a family that is mutually supportive: architect husband Harry Gesner and sons Casey, 32, from a previous marriage, and Zen, 15. “They back me up on everything I do. And don’t forget, I’ve disappeared from their lives for the past seven weeks.” She claims that the pace never takes its toll on the work itself.

“Sometimes when I’ve come in really dragged-out, I’ve thought, ‘I’m just going to walk through it today.’ And lo and behold, I’m up there sobbing, yelling, tearing my heart out. There’s nothing you can do--you can’t mark a scene, you can’t just give an inch of yourself.

“The strange thing is that people think what we do is so glamorous. It is not. But it is mysterious. It’s not a logical profession, not a case of ‘Here’s the script; you add one and one and get two’; not at all. There’s a mysterious other element that has to be added. It can happen in rehearsal, where you’ve explored a scene logically, then--like lightning--a whole moment will light up for you and suddenly you’re there, you’re real.”

It’s a challenge she finds hard to resist. “Because of my nature, whenever I’m on television hiatus (awaiting the fate of ABC’s now-canceled new comedy, “Mr. Sunshine”), I’ll always be looking for a play. And a risk: If you talk to me about a universally loved actor who can do no wrong, I’ll show you an actor who plays it safe, knows exactly the perimeters of his talent and doesn’t move an inch beyond. And that I would never do.”

For a time, however, Martin put her career on complete hold when, in 1968, she took a break from her New York acting duties and flew in to attend a reception honoring her as an “outstanding graduate” of Santa Monica High School. “And across the room came this (heretofore unknown) man who said, ‘I have been waiting for you all my life.’ It was Harry.” Martin summarily flew back to New York, packed her bags and returned to California (and Gesner)--"the smartest thing I ever did.”

The acting resurfaced one day when she encountered director Larry Peerce on the street “and he said, ‘Where did you disappear to? I’ve been trying to get hold of you. I want you for (the movie) ‘Goodbye, Columbus.’ And I thought, ‘Well, my husband has never seen me act.’ So I did that. Then Norman Twain called about playing Gertrude with Nicol Williamson and I thought, ‘Well, Harry has never seen me do a classic. . . . ‘ “

Since then, she’s worked hard and often: in television (“The Thorn Birds”), film (“All of Me”) and on stage (locally, “The Show-off” and “Grown Ups”), but has found the current spate of “mother” roles especially gratifying.

“There must be something in me that responds to that, because even when I was young, Gadge (Elia) Kazan made up his mind that I was going to play Sara (mother of five) in ‘J.B.’ At that time, all the scenes I was doing at the Actors Studio were Tennessee Williams wackos--mad, neurotic creatures. Later, he told me he’d seen me walking with Casey in Central Park and what struck him was the image of a really happy mother.”

As for any potential problems in separating the real-life role from her fictional ones, “My life may seem very chaotic, but I must have this section of me that is very orderly, because I’m Kate Keller when I’m here and I never think about Hallie. And when I’m there, I’m Hallie. The only place it gets confusing is in my dreams. Lately they’ve been very strange. . . . “