There are those actresses—no names mentioned, of course—so eager to preserve their ingénue image that they bridle strenuously at the idea of playing a mother. Fine, so just give the part to Mare Winningham.
"I rather like growing old. I've been playing a mom for a while now," the girlish-looking Ms. Winningham, 53, forthrightly said, referring to her portrayal of a beleaguered matriarch—16 offspring—in the 2012 miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys," a guest stint as Ellen Pompeo's stepmother on "Grey's Anatomy," and her role last season as a wary mother of three emotionally stunted adults in the acclaimed off-Broadway play "Tribes." Between scenes and between takes, "I get called 'Mama' a lot by other performers and it's sweet," said Ms. Winningham, the real-life mama of a passel of her own. "I enjoy it."
Ms. Winningham is getting more of what she enjoys in her Broadway debut: She plays the mother of two yearning young women in Sam Gold's revival of William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Picnic."
"I had heard I was in the running for a role, but I didn't want to get my hopes up because I felt I would be crushed if it didn't work out," she said with a self-mocking laugh during an interview at the American Airlines Theatre, where the production opens Jan. 13. "Sam and I had expressed a desire to work together, and he'd offered me a part in a play. But I wasn't able to do it because of 'Hatfields & McCoys.'"
"'Picnic' is about a single mother raising two kids, and the tragedy that comes about when she feels she's going to lose one of them," Mr. Gold said in a phone interview. "I was looking for a strong matriarchal figure. I knew I needed to ground the play with that character and that Mare would bring depth to it.
"When my daughter was born," Mr. Gold added, "Mare was one of the first people to come to my house. She brought her guitar and sang. That feeling of maternal caring felt very much a part of the role."
Ms. Winningham has made herself a disciple of both director and playwright, earnestly quoting from Mr. Gold's rehearsal orations and pointing out the juxtaposition of Inge's simple language with the characters' deep loneliness and longing. "I wrote on the back of my script something Sam said about the beauty of watching these people do these small mundane activities on a porch on a hot day in Kansas waiting for a picnic," she said. "They're cooking this and moving that, but their dreams and their hopes and what's at stake for them are so big."
Ms. Winningham had not planned on her Broadway debut being so long deferred. "In high school, theater was all I ever wanted to do," she said. "I didn't see that I was going to set it aside for so many years and take a right turn into television. Of course, wanting to do theater is something you hear a lot from actors. I think I've been embarrassed to be in that big cliché."
For more than a decade, Ms. Winningham was to TV movies what Parker Posey was to indie films—its avatar. She's made more than 40, issue-oriented and otherwise, along the way picking up two supporting-actress Emmys (for "Amber Waves" in 1980 and "George Wallace" in 1997) and four more nominations (for "Hatfields & McCoys," "Mildred Pierce" in 2011, "The Boys Next Door" in 1996 and "Love Is Never Silent" in 1986).
"It had very much to do with the family," Ms. Winningham said of her career choices. "I made a decision to live outside the city in northern California. My agent said to me, 'Kid, you're going to make a mint in television movies.' He positioned me and we picked really good projects and I cornered that market. They were 20-day projects. I was steadily employed but working only a tiny portion of the year, so I could be a full-time mom," continued Ms. Winningham, whose luck with feature films wasn't quite so pronounced. "I'd be in the room," she said. "I'd be among the final five for a good role but I'd lose out a lot to Jodie Foster."
Still, she could report a few big-screen gets: "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985); "Turner and Hooch" (1989); "Wyatt Earp" (1994)—the first of four projects with Kevin Costner; and "Georgia" (1995), where her performance in the title role—a superstar pop singer—snagged her an Oscar nomination.
One of five children, Mary Megan Winningham grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Goal No. 1 was to become a singer-songwriter in the mold of Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris. Meanwhile, she'd star in all the school plays. To defray the hefty fee at an arts camp, she signed on for "The Gong Show," NBC's amateur talent competition, singing and strumming "Here, There and Everywhere"—and collected the top prize: $500.
That victory was clearly no fluke. Soon after, Ms. Winningham was signed by an agent who'd caught her performance as Maria in the high-school production of "The Sound of Music." Captain Von Trapp was played by a classmate who answered to the name Kevin Spacey.
"He was great as the captain. He should do it again now that he's really old enough," Ms. Winningham said. "When he sang 'Edelweiss' it was very touching." The two former co-stars sat a row apart sharing Red Vine licorice at the Oscars some 20 years later when both were up for awards—Mr. Spacey for "The Usual Suspects" (he won); Ms. Winningham for "Georgia," a project she'd almost turned down.
"I had been working hard on an album at the time. It was my first CD and I was planning on going on tour," she recalled. "I think I saw it as my shot at doing the music thing, finally making it happen, maybe making a living at it. So there was something discomforting about playing a world-famous singer-songwriter. I felt I was stepping on my own toes. It seems silly now, but at the time I was thinking, 'can I do both?'"
For Ms. Winningham, the idea of doing both was pretty radical. She tended to deal more in "or" than "and," more in "later" than "now." When she was pregnant with her fifth child, "I stood on my porch and thought, 'how old will I be when he's 18 and goes to college?' And I remember thinking 'I'll be in my late 40s. There are great theater roles for 47-year-olds.'"
Soon after her son began pursuing higher education, there Ms. Winningham was, right on schedule, scoring a triumph in "10 Million Miles," an off-Broadway musical built on a cache of Patty Griffin songs. "It was a big deal to tell myself, 'You did it,'" Ms. Winningham said. "'You got to New York."'
Now, she's savoring her latest big deal. "It's my Broadway debut," she said. "It's an American classic. It's Willam Inge. It's Sam Gold. So I think this worked out just right."
Ms. Kaufman writes about culture for the Journal.
A version of this article appeared January 9, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: They Call Her 'Mama'.