Hepburn's Voyage
'Voyager's' Kate Mulgrew and playwright Matthew Lombardo take on Katharine Hepburn

NY Blade News 2/8/02

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have a conversation with Katharine Hepburn, your chance may have finally arrived. Though the 94-year old actress has quietly slipped out of public view, a new play opening this week allows audiences to sit down over tea with one of America’s biggest drama queens.

The brainchild of out gay playwright Matthew Lombardo, "Tea at Five" was conceived on a bed. But unlike most things that begin on a mattress, it would take five years to come to life.

"I was sitting on my dear friend Nancy Addison’s bed and ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ came on," Lombardo recalls. "I thought how much Kate Mulgrew looked and sounded like Katharine Hepburn. And I made a mental note for myself, I thought, ‘That woman is going to do a one-woman show about Hepburn’s life, and she’s going to do it with me.’"

It didn’t hurt that bed’s owner was not only a dear friend to Lombardo, but Mulgrew’s best friend.

"Kate and I knew each other socially, but I didn’t know her that well," Lombardo explains. "I started to do all this research, watched the films and started to add all the bits and pieces together in my head. A play brews in my head for anywhere from 10 months to 10 years and then it’s time to come out."

Five years after that initial thought, Lombardo had a rough draft, which he mailed to Mulgrew. She called him the next day, and the two immediately began moving forward with the project.

"She really had no choice," he says, "because the alternative was that I would start stalking her."

Lombardo, who came out to his parents at age 15 and to his high school during graduation, has been involved in a string of high-profile gay plays, writing "Guilty Innocence" and "Mother and Child," and directing productions of "Torch Song Trilogy" and "The End of the World Party."

"I’ve always been openly gay. I have an exceptional family that has loved and supported me no matter what I did," he explains. "To grow up in that kind of environment was so important to me."

And while his home environment represented a safe place to express himself, the community in which he grew up in did not always share that understanding.

The first play Lombardo penned, "Guilty Innocence," was based on a true story that took place in his hometown of Hartford, Conn., when a high-school quarterback picked up a gay man for sex, and then beat the man to death.

"What inspired me to write the play was not the story itself, but the fact that the principal of South Catholic [High School] stood up for him and said, ‘Well the man was gay and he obviously did something to deserve it,’" says Lombardo. "Having gone to South Catholic, I knew where that kind of mentality came from."

The play drew critical acclaim and opened up old wounds for Hartford -- coincidentally, also Katharine Hepburn’s hometown, and not-so-coincidentally, where "Tea at Five" makes its world debut.

"I wanted it to go to Hartford because that’s where I was born and because I have always respected the Hartford Stage Company for the work they do," Lombardo says. "And as far as casting… well, you couldn’t ask for better."

Mulgrew, who has been compared to Hepburn her entire life, agreed to star in the one-woman show without hesitation, but admits to some apprehensions as the project began to take shape. "I think nothing diffuses apprehension more than good and thorough research, which is exactly what Matthew, John Tillinger [the director] and myself have done," she explains. "Ms. Hepburn is still alive and it is very important to all of us, myself probably more than anyone, to present to the public an understanding of her life that is both profound and respectful, but not self-aggrandizing."

Lombardo admits that the writing process was painful, because he had to find a way to paint a complete portrait of the 94-year-old in two short hours. "My main objective with the play was always to honor and respect her and come from a place of honesty," he explains. "And honesty isn’t always pretty."

"She is a very complex, extraordinary woman and I there are some things in the play that will surprise you to learn about her," Mulgrew adds. "This is really a conversation between a young Katharine Hepburn, the older Hepburn, and the audience. It will help me if I can bring the audience to me in Act One with an immediacy and an intimacy of a friendship in which it is of great importance that one person tell the other exactly what is going on and why. My hope is that it will have an urgency and an accessibility."

Hepburn certainly has a following in the gay community, but Mulgrew and Lombardo both believe that her appeal is universal. Mulgrew also has a gay following, from her years playing Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager."

"I would say that the gay community is able to exercise a kind of empathy that the straight community cannot regarding unorthodox people, because they themselves are charting a course that is both unorthodox and very brave," notes Mulgrew. "Hence, I think their attraction to characters that are rather epic like Janeway and certainly Katharine Hepburn. The key word is empathy, without which there can be no theater."

One of the most intriguing subjects tackled by the play is Hepburn’s legendary love affair with Spencer Tracy, who was married to another woman during their 27-year relationship.

"It would be very easy to take the straight and narrow, but I don’t think that was the truth," Mulgrew asserts. "It was a multi-layered, deeply complex, often hidden relationship. I am trying to bring it to life from her own unconscious, so she almost surprises herself in what ultimately unfolds."

While both Lombardo and Mulgrew wrestled with the implications of delving into such a personal examination of the life of someone who is not only still very much alive, but who has not authorized the project, they feel confident that the work would be well-received by their subject. It was Hepburn, after all, who said, "Life can be wildly tragic at times, and I’ve had my share. But whatever happens to you, you have to keep a slightly comic attitude. What the hell -- you might be right, you might be wrong -- but don't just avoid."