Cleveland Free Times

August 14 - 20, 2002

The Importance of Being Hepburn 
Kate Mulgrew Embodies the Legendary Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five

by Marie Andrusewicz

Once, during an interview, Barbara Walters infamously asked Katharine Hepburn, "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" Hepburn spun infotainment straw into aphoristic gold, answering, "I would want to be a willow. For the mighty oak breaks in two when it encounters a storm, and the willow can bend to the ground and rise again in times of trouble."

In his own attempt at uncovering the spirit of Hepburn, Tea at Five playwright Matthew Lombardo took an approach that focused less on the grandeur of Hepburn's "tree" and more on the mystery of the icon's roots. In fact, the reality and depth of the portrait, presented at the Cleveland Play House for a two-week run before going on to performances at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, is unflinchingly candid in parts. So much so that Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton (who played the daughter in the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), after attending a performance of the one-woman show during its debut run in Hartford, pronounced the play "trash." Her reaction surprised Lombardo since, he says, audiences are coming away from Tea at Five saying that it's a wonderful and flattering portrait of a living legend.

"I understand her position as a loyal niece," the author says. "She has her opinion, and she's entitled." Says Lombardo of his honest portrayal: "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't." However, the playwright also points out that biographies of Hepburn, specifically Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn by Anne Edwards, and Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Leaming, paint far less flattering pictures of the actress than Tea at Five. Lombardo did draw on these books, as well as Hepburn's autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, for research, often giving Hepburn's recollections of events the greatest weight.

"They're a very private family, the Hepburns," Lombardo says. "[Katharine] could be gracious, she could be ruthless, she could be generous and she could be difficult. When writing about such a person, you want to create a character that shows all of those colors. Tea at Five is not all lilacs and furry animals. This is not a puff piece."

While he was growing up, Lombardo's family summered in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the location of the Hepburn family home and the setting for Tea at Five (and also where Hepburn, 95, currently resides). It wasn't proximity to the legend during his formative years that inspired Lombardo to write the one-woman show based on her life. It was an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Actress Kate Mulgrew, wife of Ohio gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan, was, says Lombardo, the "sole inspiration" for his play. He was sitting with soap opera actress Nancy Addison, a good friend of Mulgrew's, flipping through television stations, when a glimpse of Captain Janeway on the small screen prompted Lombardo to remark, "That woman needs to play Katharine Hepburn."

Mulgrew, herself a formidable presence and possessed of a voice as distinctive as Hepburn's, eagerly threw herself into her first stage role in years, having just finished her seven-year contract with the sci-fi TV series.

"Kate likes to say that I wrote the script in three days," says Lombardo. "That's not exactly true. This script had been around in my head for years." It was just a question of putting the words on paper, which he did -- in Miami, where he does his best writing -- over the course of three sleepless days and nights.

Mulgrew took on the challenge of playing Hepburn on the condition that the play not be a vanity piece. She also has had a say in some of the numerous rewrites of Tea at Five -- Lombardo says he's done "at least a hundred" so far, three already since arriving in Cleveland for rehearsals. Many of Mulgrew's suggested changes had to do with the actress's mannerisms, and whether or not the dialogue seemed authentic. Mulgrew has done exhaustive research on the icon and has developed two distinct voices, which critics have said are eerily on target, for the Act I Hepburn (age 31) and the Act II Hepburn (age 76). Lombardo likes to say of the two Hepburns that Act I shows who she is, and Act II shows why she is who she is.

The majority of Lombardo's latest revisions were in Act I. One of the scenes depicts a painful turning point in Hepburn's life -- her failure to win the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. In the Hartford production, the audience didn't hear Hepburn say she didn't get the part until Act II. Lombardo moved the moment up into Act I to show more of the icon's vulnerability earlier in the play. "Hepburn really thought she had that role," he points out. "Who else was there? She was an award-winning actress at the height of her career."

But the powers that be in Hollywood blackballed her, Lombardo says. "And when her career was on the downswing, they relished it." A string of box office failures led Photoplay magazine in 1938 to call her "box office poison." Hepburn took matters into her own hands by buying the film rights to Philip Barry's play The Philadelphia Story, hand-picking the film's director and co-stars, and reinvigorating her career.

Although Mulgrew has expressed an interest in taking Tea at Five to New York, Lombardo, whose prior playwriting credits include Mother and Child and Guilty Innocence, as well as a stint writing for the soap Another World, says he's not looking that far ahead; he's focused instead on polishing up the show for Cleveland audiences. Lombardo seems to be enjoying his artistic residency at the Play House, specifically the contrast between working in a sprawling multitheater complex and the more compact houses in New York City. "This place is huge. I get lost here, like a rat in a maze," he jokes, adding, "what a wonderful place for Clevelanders."

In spite of any dissent voiced by Hepburn's relatives, it seems obvious that the playwright has crafted a piece that is, on the whole, a celebration of the screen legend's unyielding spirit.

"I really have come to have a whole new respect for her," Lombardo says. "She was a woman who, if she wanted to do a role back in the 1940s and '50s, she would find the script, buy the script, go into L.B. Mayer's office and negotiate for it. If you look at women even today, extremely talented women -- Streisand, Midler, Lupone -- like Hepburn, they're tough because they have to be. And Katharine Hepburn created the mold."