NEW YORK — When Kate Burton first read the role of Helen in the Theresa Rebeck play “The Water’s Edge,” it literally left the hair standing up on the back of her neck — for all the right reasons.
“It was the first time since I’d played Hedda Gabler  that I’d had a kind of visceral experience with a play,” explains Burton, 48. “I just thought, ‘You know, it’s very rare to have a writer that writes something so wonderful for a woman that’s not under the age of 40.”
The play, which opens Wednesday night at the Second Stage Theatre, begins 17 years after Helen (Burton) and Richard (Tony Goldwyn) have lost their young daughter in a drowning accident. Richard had abandoned the family, and, after years without contact, he returns, girlfriend in tow, to try to make amends with Helen and their two young adult children. Revelations unfold, pent up anger is released and, ultimately, the question of whether this family can rebuild itself is resolved.
Burton first tried the part out in a production two years ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. And considering the reaction she had during her first reading, it’s unsurprising she chose to reprise it. “It was really wonderful to have this full-bodied woman who was funny and smart and sexy and ferocious and angry and sad. She just had everything,” says Burton, who is seated in her dressing room, still wearing her workout clothes after a trip to the gym.
A superficial glance at Burton’s current life might suggest that she, too, has everything. There is the 21-year marriage to theater artistic director Michael Ritchie, the two children (her daughter, Charlotte, is 8 and her son, Morgan, is headed to Brown, Burton’s alma mater) and the thriving career, including three Tony nominations and recurring roles on the shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Rescue Me.”
If Burton has “arrived,” though, it has not been by any traditional trajectory. Born in Geneva, the daughter of Richard Burton and Sybil Williams, she was a toddler when her father’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor made headlines. Her mother moved to New York, got remarried (to musician Jordan Christopher) and opened a nightclub, Arthur’s. Young Burton attended the United Nations International School, where she fell in love with all things Russian (she is fluent in both French and Russian) before heading off to Brown, intent on becoming a diplomat. At the time, she wasn’t considering acting seriously.
“I just had grown up in a house where my mother was a former actress and she had some actress friends and they were all nuts,” laughs Burton.
During her senior year at Brown, however, an adviser told her she was squandering her gift, and so Burton went to the Yale School of Drama. Broadway followed, and she now finds herself juggling film, television, theater and even book-on-tape voice-over work — not to mention the work of being a mother and wife. The latter is an occupation that will take her to Los Angeles this fall, where her husband has recently been made artistic director of the Center Theatre Group.
Sacrifice is OK with her, she says: “There are still things we cannot do because we’re women. It’s just the reality…even now, in a totally equal marriage, I’m the one who is always going to organize the baby-sitting.”