Kate Burton, attired as Cleopatra, is seated opposite me near the vending machines down the hall from her dressing room for The Grand Manner. She is made-up, appropriately, with dramatic eye shadow, because she is about to begin a tech rehearsal. There is something incongruous about the Queen of the Nile in the vicinity of bags of Cheetos and bottles of Diet Coke, but Burton and I disregard our surroundings and barge right into discussion of the character she is playing in A. R. Gurney's play: Katharine Cornell.
"I didn't know much about her before I took this part," Burton says, "but I'm trying to catch up. I usually don't like to do too much research, because it can muddy the waters, but with Cornell all the reading has been fun." Burton has, she says, been dipping into Tad Mosel's biography of Cornell. "I just learned from it this week," Burton said, "that Cornell had an abortion when she was 26. And, yes, Guthrie McClintic was the father. Their relationship was apparently very physical at first, until they discovered other tastes in partners."
Unlike Cornell, who, her interpreter says, wasn't really interested in doing movies in Hollywood, Burton has had careers on both coasts. (Her husband, Michael Ritchie, is the artistic director of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.) Burton has been Tony-nominated for The Constant Wife, Hedda Gabler, and The Elephant Man, and Emmy-nominated for "Grey's Anatomy," and an Emmy winner for "Notes for My Daughter."
"Cornell didn't concentrate on movies -- she thought it was her mission to bring culture to the country," Burton said. "She toured constantly, although she played cities mostly on the coasts - Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston. Chicago was the Midwest exception."
Burton continued: "I've been learning about Cornell on tour not just from Mosel's book but by other people's memoirs." For example? "Christopher Plummer's memoir" - which is called In Spite of Myself - "has quite a bit about her."
In that memoir, Plummer writes: "[Cornell] sometimes wants to leave the stage door, like any normal person, wearing slacks and sweaters for simplicity and comfort. [McClintic] screams at her, 'You are a star. When the public sees you, you must look like a star.' He dresses her in Mainbocher, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga."
"It's hard to imagine" Burton commented, "but theater stars had to behave like royalty then."
In the Great Chain of Being that is the history of the American theater, Burton has her own connections to Cornell. One of them: "I did a production of Alice in Wonderland on Broadway in 1982. One of the cast members was Maureen Stapleton. Maureen toured in Cornell's production of Antony and Cleopatra."
Has Burton ever had the desire to play Cleo? "No," she replied, "although I'm happy that I do get to do a chunk of Antony and Cleopatra in The Grand Manner. And I did a reading of Antony and Cleopatra years ago for the Shakespeare Society in New York. Mark Lamos" - who is directing The Grand Manner - "was the director."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.