Cleveland Plain Dealer
Sunday, August 18, 2002

The story behind 1-woman show on Hepburn 

Tony Brown 
Plain Dealer Theater Critic

It started as an idea in New York more than five years ago, was written down in Miami, read by a TV star in Hollywood and first performed in Connecticut in February. 

This week, it opens in Cleveland, then heads to Boston next month and maybe Broadway within a year. 

That's the voyage of "Tea at Five," a one-woman show with "Star Trek: Voyager's" Kate Mulgrew playing film legend Katharine Hepburn. It begins a 15-performance stand Tuesday night at the Cleveland Play House. 

The Cleveland stop was engineered by Mulgrew, who is married to Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan, and by Play House artistic director Peter Hackett. 

Mulgrew wanted to do the show on her home turf while her husband is on the campaign trail. And Hackett hopes it has the same kind of box-office success it had at Hartford Stage, where it played to sold-out audiences and was extended. Observers say it helped bail the theater out of a financially troubled season. 

Hackett, who is living with budget deficits of his own, appears to be getting his wish. "Tea at Five" has broken all advance ticket-sale records at the 87-year-old theater. As of Friday morning, the box office reported selling $224,000 worth of tickets. That's more than twice the previous record-holder for advance sales. 

But, Play House officials said, there are still approximately 4,000 seats available for the show. 

The Cleveland stopover for "Tea at Five" will be the first time the show has been seen outside the city where Hepburn was born and raised. She still lives, at age 95, on her family estate in Old Saybrook along the Connecticut coast, where the play is set. 

"It was difficult to gauge a show like this playing only her hometown," said John Tillinger, the veteran Broadway director who is in charge of "Tea at Five." "The theater was truly sold out. It made a lot of money for them. But I wondered, 'how would it play in another city?' " 

In Hartford, the play won some free publicity from members of the Hepburn family, who didn't care for it. 

Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton (who starred with Hepburn in the film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"), called it "trash." She praised the performance of Mulgrew, who plays Hepburn at age 31 in the first act and age 76 in Act 2, but condemned playwright Matthew Lombardo, whom she accused of sensationalizing her aunt's life story. 

Lombardo, who has been at the Play House along with Tillinger and Mulgrew for rehearsals, said he isn't so concerned with the family's reactions. He said they also criticized the three major biographies of Hepburn. 

The author said he's more focused on improving what he sees as weaknesses in his play, which he says has gone through 100 rewrites along the way. Lombardo said he has reshaped about 20 percent of the show since the Hartford run, and "tonally" the play is vastly different. 

"We had so much success in Hartford, but I could see little places where I said to myself, 'I am not digging deep enough,' " Lombardo said. "Now I think it does that, reveals more." 

© 2002 The Plain Dealer.