Sonorous Kate Mulgrew (lately on TV's "The Black Donnellys") plays the leading lady whose successful career was stained by the fateful booking she performed at Ford's Theatre in 1865. President Abraham Lincoln was shot during her troupe's rendition of Our American Cousin.
Manhattan Theatre Club's world-premiere production, which began previews Feb. 22 at New York City Center Stage I, reunites playwright Busch with director Lynne Meadow, MTC's artistic director, who made a hit of Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife in the same Off-Broadway space. Tale then moved to Broadway (where it was Best Play Tony Award-nominated), went on tour and has had a wide regional life.
Our Leading Lady, according to MTC, "is a truly original play about the theatre. Laura Keene (Mulgrew), a nineteenth-century American stage luminary, prepares to perform at Ford's Theatre on the fateful night when Abraham Lincoln is in the audience."
The cast also features Reed Birney (as Gavin DeChamblay), Barbara Bryne (as Maude Bentley), Maxwell Caulfield (as Harry Hawk), Ann Duquesnay (as Madame Wu-Chan), J.R. Horne (as Major Hopwood), Kristine Nielsen (as Verbena Morris), Amy Rutberg (as Clementine Smith) and Billy Wheelan (as W.J. Ferguson).
Charles Busch is both a celebrated playwright and performer. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. He wrote the book for the Broadway mounting of Taboo, and he also penned the screenplays for and starred in the films "Die, Mommie, Die" and "Psycho Beach Party."
Kate Mulgrew has appeared on Broadway in Black Comedy and in Central Park in Titus Andronicus, but she is probably better known as the strong-jawed Captain Janeway of TV's "Star Trek: Voyager." She also toured the country in a one-woman show about the life of Katharine Hepburn, Tea at Five.
Keene was born in London around 1826 and came to the United States in 1852. She acted in New York, managed a Baltimore theatre and toured to California and abroad before settling back in New York to run a theatre and produce mostly contemporary plays. Her successes included productions of Jane Eyre, Camille and Our American Cousin.
Joseph Jefferson and E.A. Sothern — major American performers of the 1800s — grew in talent and popularity in her company. She left her New York theatre and toured in the economically perilous Civil War days. A booking at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. would be unforgettable — for Keene, the nation and the world.
Laura Keene died in 1873. Like so many other stage artists who worked before the era of electronic media, she has no marquee value in the popular imagination today.
New York City Center Stage II, one of MTC's two Off-Broadway homes, is located at 131 West 55th Street. Tickets, priced at $50, are available by calling (212) 581-1212. For more information visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com.