Hartford Courant
February 10, 2002
A Delicate Balance Matthew Lombardo's Challenge: Writing About A Living Legend Who's So Private
Courant Staff Writer
She was determined, daring and dazzling, and there was no one quite like her. Katharine Hepburn became a singular icon of the 20th century and an American original. With a combination of New England grit and Hollywood glam, she was a self-creation who reached for the stars and became one.

Her life - with its triumphs and reversals - is a natural subject matter for a one-person show. That's also what playwright Matthew Lombardo, actress Kate Mulgrew and artistic director Michael Wilson thought. Now the life of Connecticut's grandest of dames is being presented in her own backyard with Hartford Stage's world premiere of "Tea at Five," now in previews and opening Wednesday.

Still, doing the life of a person known to be 1.) private, and 2.) a tough cookie and 3.) alive, is to some an audacious idea. While Hepburn, who turns 95 in May, is still living at her family homestead in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, her health has been increasingly fragile in recent years.

"It was a ticklish business in whether to talk to the family about the show," says Wilson, who was advised by Lombardo's lawyer not to make any formal overtures.

So far, the family is circumspect about the project. The family's position, according to Hepburn's brother-in-law Ellsworth Grant, is neither hostile nor supportive so much as "curious." He says family members probably will see the show during the run in Hartford.

Grant says the family is most concerned about the play's perpetuating "myths and untruths" from some previous biographies of Hepburn.

"It's been a delicate issue from the start," says Lombardo, choosing his words carefully. "I have immense respect for her and the family." But he says he feels the work he has done using a wide range of source material - including Hepburn's autobiography "Me" - has passed legal muster. "And I never get into any gossipy, dishy aspect of her life," he says. "If there are contradictions in the source materials, I always say, `Whatever Hepburn says, she's the trump card.' If she says it happened this way, it happened this way."

But Lombardo says the aim of his work is to get to the core of an extraordinary woman's life and career.

"I think this is going to be an absolutely rapturous evening of theater, especially for Connecticut audiences," says Wilson. "They are going to love this play."

Wilson might be on to something. Already the box office is buzzing, and Jacques Lamarre, director of marketing and public relations, reports the show is expected "to far surpass" single ticket projections.

Of course, the name Hepburn has a strong local following. But the interest is in no small part due to the star power of Mulgrew, whose fans include loyal legions from "Star Trek" and "Ryan's Hope." (Mulgrew played Capt. Kathryn Janeway on television's "Star Trek: Voyager" series, which ended its eighth and final season last year. In the '80s, she was a popular regular as Mary Ryan Fenelli on the ABC daytime drama.)

Wilson says the draw is a salute to the strong appeal of Hepburn's character. "She is a great American heroine," he says. "There's something about her resilient, tough and enduring spirit, which comes off as very admirable."

Fast-Track Play

Unlike many plays that spend years in development, with readings and workshops, the evolution of "Tea at Five" was on a fast track from page to stage. Lombardo had been thinking and researching the subject for years, with the idea of creating a vehicle for Mulgrew, who was a friend of a friend of his. Events accelerated in 2001, once he learned that Mulgrew's "Voyager" series would be ending filming last April. In March, he flew down to Miami's South Beach, where he set out to write the Hepburn work, which he did in less than a month. He Fed-Ex'd the script to Mulgrew's Brentwood, Calif., home. She loved it, and Lombardo sent it to Hartford Stage via another pal, Long Wharf Theatre managing director Michael Ross, who thought it would be perfect for Hepburn's hometown theater.

After a meeting with Wilson and associate artistic director Chris Baker, the play seemed to be destined for a run at Hartford Stage last summer. (In past years, the stage company featured one-person shows by Jean Stapleton and David Selby during the hot-weather months). But increasing demands with Hartford Stage's production of "The Glass Menagerie" last year scratched any summer programming at the theater.

With no summer date available, Wilson announced last June that "Tea at Five" would have its world premiere in the 2001-02 "American season," which was to open with the previously announced "The Philadelphia Story," a career triumph for Hepburn and a pivotal moment in "Tea at Five."

Lombardo continued to rewrite the script to address notes from Wilson, Baker, Mulgrew and the play's newly named director, John Tillinger, a veteran of Connecticut productions. A private reading in November gave the team added confidence in the work.

Another Hartford Tie

The production has an additional local angle in the 37-year-old Lombardo, who was born in Hartford and raised in Wethersfield.

At 15, he made his stage debut playing a bat boy in Hartford Stage's production of "Damn Yankees" in 1979. Later he was an intern at the theater before attending the University of Connecticut part time for a while before deciding to become a playwright in New York.

His first play was "Guilty Innocence," based on the 1988 gay-bashing murder of Wethersfield insurance analyst Richard Reihl ; then "Mother and Child," about the strained relationship of a Mississippi mother and her gay son dying of AIDS, also based on a true story. Lombardo also wrote for the daytime drama "Another World." More recently, he directed a production of "Torch Song Trilogy" in Provincetown, Mass., and an off-Broadway production of the comedy "End of the World Party."

"I spent my summers in Old Saybrook," says Lombardo. "I would see Fenwick from afar, but I never saw her. My cousin's wife used to see her buying meat a lot. That was the extent of my Hepburn connection."

The play is set in Fenwick, with the first act taking place in1938. In the play, a 31-year-old Hepburn returns to Connecticut after being labeled "box office poison" following a string of film flops. But the misery doesn't end there. She has also learned that she failed to get the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind." And she discovers that her brother Dick wrote a play about a movie actress who escapes to her family's home in Connecticut to mull over a marriage proposal from her millionaire boyfriend. As if that weren't enough, the great hurricane of 1938 - which was to destroy much of the family home - was fast approaching.

The act ends with the arrival of the script for "The Philadelphia Story," the play that would restart Hepburn's career.

"In Act 1, she is still forming herself," says Mulgrew, "and she is such a complicated person. It's not just the voice. It's Fenwick, her family, the death of her brother [Tom], the Hepburn curse, the history of suicide in her family, going against her father, who was the great love of her life."

The second act takes place in 1983, as she recuperates from a car accident. Now, at 76, she reflects back on her career and her relationship with Spencer Tracy.

"At the end," says Mulgrew, "she does what she does throughout her life in moments of peril, terror and despair. You get up, and you go, and you do it with a certain je ne sais quoi."

"I think we've been very fair. You know she's tough on herself in her own book," says Tillinger. "I think she would be thrilled, and I hope she can come. It's like going to your own funeral to see what people said about you. And who wouldn't be fascinated?"