Early Feb. 2002
Hartford Native, Gay Playwright Matthew Lombardo’s “Tea at Five” Premieres at Hartford Stage
By T.E. Gilchrist
For playwright Matthew Lombardo, an evening of watching television with a friend turned into a literary odyssey that has led him to premiere his new play at the Hartford Stage Company. Lombardo and friend Nancy Addison were watching “Star trek: Voyager” which featured Addison’s good friend Kate Mulgrew in the role of Captain Janeway.
“God she talks like Hepburn,” said Lombardo, “God she looks like Hepburn.” At that point he made the decision to write a play specifically for Mulgrew to star as Katharine Hepburn. The result is “Tea at Five” directed by John Tillinger which premieres at The Hartford Stage Company On February seventh and runs through March tenth. The one woman show features Mulgrew as the screen legend in two acts that polarize Hepburn’s life and career.
Lombardo is a Connecticut native who grew up on Montowese Street in Hartford’s South End and later moved to Wethersfield. He returns to The Hartford Stage Company 23 years after his debut at the age of fifteen as Bat Boy #2 in “Damn Yankees”. “The role was critical to the plot,” laughs Lombardo.
Since he left Connecticut years ago for the bright lights of New York City, Lombardo has garnered himself an impressive resume that includes writing and directing. Lombardo has made his mark in his career and in the gay community with directing plays such as the 20th Anniversary production of “Torch Song Trilogy” at The American Stage Company and most recently the Off-Broadway comedy “End of the World Party” about a group of men on Fire Island at the 47th Street Theatre. He hit close to home when he wrote and directed “Guilty Innocence” about Richard Riehle who was the Wethersfield man killed in the late eighties by two teenagers because he was gay. “Guilty Innocence” ran at the Actor’s Playhouse.
For “Tea at Five” Lombardo has stepped beside as a director and placed that piece of the production in the hands of John Tillinger. “We complemented each other,” Lombardo says, “he is an expert at the one character venue.”
Tillinger along with Lombardo and Mulgrew round out the triumvirate that have worked to bring Hepburn’s life to the stage.
After his decision to write the play for Mulgrew, Lombardo conceived the idea of portraying Hepburn’s life in two acts: Act One focusing on the younger Hepburn and Act Two showing Hepburn as her career began to wind down. “Tea at Five” takes place at Hepburn’s home Fenwick estate in Old Saybrook. In Act One, it is 1938 and Hepburn’s career is on a downswing after several failed films that garnered her the nickname of “Box Office Poison”. Act Two takes place 45 years later in Hepburn’s career after she has been in a car crash. Through Lombardo’s words, the actress reflects on her life and love with Spencer Tracy. In regard to Lombardo’s ability to bring Hepburn’s life to the stage through his words Mulgrew says, “he is a kind of genius, he has an eerie grasp on Hepburn.” When posed with the question of which act they prefer, both Lombardo and Mulgrew hesitate to choose. “That is like choosing a lover over a husband,” Mulgrew says. For Lombardo the act he prefers on a specific day is directly related to how he is feeling emotionally. He describes Act One as a “staccato song” while the second act is a “legato type of song”. Democratically he says, “I like both the actresses in Acts One and Two.”
Lombardo describes the process of watching his work come to fruition as a birthing of sorts with director Tillinger as the mid-wife. Along with watching his piece take shape come an array of emotion including “terror, joy, sadness, awe in watching Kate(Mulgrew), fulfillment and depression and I feel some of those at the same time,” Lombardo says.
The title of the piece is derived from a tradition in the Hepburn home at 133 Hawthorne Street when they served tea at five. The Hepburns invited various people to tea including artists, writers and political figures. Katharine Hepburn carried on the tradition when she began to serve tea at five on the set with Spencer Tracy. The Hepburns halted the tradition when Katharine’s brother Tom committed suicide.
With the imminent premiere of “Tea at Five,” Lombardo has not taken much time to rest. He has recently finished two plays, “House of Atreus” and “The Kennel Club” which is about six dogs on death row. He is also working on an adaption of the novel “Scary Kisses” by Brad Gooch.
Being openly gay is a non-isssue for Lombardo other than the fact that he has brought several poignant gay themed plays to life and into the lives of the public. He has been out since his prom. I asked Lombardo how many jokes he has heard regarding gay men and Katharine Hepburn to which he replied jokingly, “You're the first to bring that up....Bitch!”
Through Lombardo, Mulgrew, Tillinger and The Hartford Stage Company Connecticut residents can watch the screen legend’s life recreated in “Tea at Five.” Would you prefer milk or sugar with that?
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