E. Katherine Kerr, a stage and screen actress and playwright who won strong reviews for her Off Broadway work and an Obie Award in 1982 for her performance in Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9,” died on July 1 in Sarasota, Fla. She was 82.
Her friend and neighbor Tess Link, who was by her side when Ms. Kerr died at Tidewell Hospice, said the cause was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Ms. Kerr had received the diagnosis three months earlier.
Ms. Kerr was probably best known for her roles in star-studded films like Mike Nichols’s “Silkwood” (1983), a drama about a nuclear plant whistle-blower, in which she acted alongside Meryl Streep and Cher, and the crime drama “Suspect” (1987), with Cher and Dennis Quaid.
The bulk of her career, though, was onstage. In “Cloud 9,” a two-act satire set in both British colonial Africa and 1979 London, she played three characters — two in the first act and one in the second. The performance brought her a Drama Desk nomination as well as the Obie.
Ms. Kerr received another Drama Desk nomination for her Off Broadway performance in 1987 in the lead female role of Christopher Durang’s comedy “Laughing Wild” at Playwrights Horizon.
In his review in The New York Times, Frank Rich called Ms. Kerr “a chic and mesmerizing figure” and noted that Mr. Durang, who also starred in the production, had written the role expressly for her.
“One can see why,” Mr. Rich wrote. “This actress delivers her most hostile lines (‘I wish I’d been killed when I was a fetus’) with a savage, taunting bark that might make Elaine Stritch seem like a Pollyanna.”
Elaine Katherine Kerr was born on April 20, 1937, in Indianapolis to Beatrice and Dr. John Francis Kerr. Her mother was a music teacher; her father, who died in World War II, was a physician. (Her mother later remarried.)
She is survived by a great-niece, Tess Weber.
After graduating from Indiana University, Ms. Kerr took a job as a high school English teacher. In 1963, not long into her teaching career, she was asked to become the faculty adviser of the drama club. With little experience, she decided to go to New York and enroll in summer classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse and then return to Indiana to teach.
But acting drew her in, and she never moved back to the Midwest.
Soon after taking classes, Ms. Kerr landed a role in a production of Euripides’ “The Trojan Women,” staged by the theater and movie director Michael Cacoyannis at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.
Ms. Kerr later had small roles in the original Broadway casts of Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1969 play, “No Place to Be Somebody,” and Lucille Fletcher’s “Night Watch.” She performed in Buffalo, Atlanta and New Orleans. But she was struggling to get leading roles in New York.
Frustrated, Ms. Kerr took a hiatus in 1978. “I went on a self-exploration journey,” she told The Times three years later.
She sought self-improvement through EST (Erhard Seminars Training) and underwent psychotherapy. Afterward she decided to go by the name Katherine instead of Elaine, to reflect her inner transformation.
“Elaine sounded like a wimp,” she told The Times in 1987. “Katherine sounded strong, positive, in charge.”
She decided to keep the “E,” though, so as not to “kill off Elaine,” she said.
With a change in her name came a shift in her success. Where Elaine had given solid but minor performances in the early 1970s, E. Katherine gained meatier roles in the ’80s and laudatory reviews.
She eventually took on playwriting with “Juno’s Swans,” a comedy about two sisters, Cecil and Cary, who reconnect when Cecil, newly divorced, moves to New York to stay with Cary, a struggling actress.
The play’s title is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”: “And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans/ Still we went coupled and inseparable.”
“Juno’s Swans” had its premiere in 1978 at the Ensemble Studio Theater, a showcase for new talent. It then moved to the PAF Playhouse in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island, where Ms. Kerr had a starring role. It was resurrected in 1985 in an Off Broadway production at Second Stage.
It was around that time that Ms. Kerr started teaching acting, holding a two-day workshop that took her around the world for three decades. She also taught at Yale, New York University and Sarah Lawrence College and at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School and the 42nd Street Collective.
She wrote a book on acting, “The Four Principles: Applying the Keys of Brilliant Acting to Life,” published in 2011.
As she got older, Ms. Kerr moved to Florida and took to blogging. In her last post, dated Jan. 16 of this year, she discussed her successful treatment for cataracts.
“Now, when I type this, words and pictures on my computer look bright, crisp and colorful,” she wrote. “And when I look out my window, the palm tree and hibiscus bush look bright, crisp and colorful. My wonderful brain decides which eye to use without any direction from me.”
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