Kate Mulgrew Does a Characterization of Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five
Kate Mulgrew is skillful in portraying the great actress ensconced in her beloved Fenwick home where she reflects on the dizzying heights and emotional lows of her childhood days, adventures in show business and her heartbreaking romance with Spencer Tracy. The first act takes place in the living room of her "cottage" in Fenwick, Connecticut in 1938. She is reeling from being named "box office poison" after seven flop films in a row. The actress says she has the "honor" of instigating that term which was later tagged onto such performers as Joan Crawford. Kate talks about her early childhood, her dominating father and her decease brother. She tells an amusing story about first meeting with the great John Barrymore who co-starred with her in Bill of Divorcement. She also tells of her aversion to "calla lilies" as she hates being identified with the line "the calla lilies are in bloom again." She mentions the famous Dorothy Parker quote on her performance in The Lake on Broadway where the critic said Ms. Hepburn "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."
Ms. Mulgrew captures the essence of Hepburn in this first act; however, she sometimes lapses into a bit of Tallulah Bankhead and I feel we don't get a true picture of the real Kate Hepburn up on that stage. During the act, she is interrupted by a phone call from her agent and former lover Leland Hayward who, as she says, "tragically has excelled in neither." He is trying to get her the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, which she desperately wants to save her career. The first act ends with the arrival of a script from Philip Barry. Anyone in show business knows it is the script for The Philadelphia Story. I felt on the whole she was a caricature of the famed actress with a very weak first act book.
Tea at Five's second act opens in 1983 after Parkinson's disease has taken hold. The living room has changed since a major flood destroyed most the home during the intervening period. It is during this act that Kate Mulgrew is more like the actress I knew. She is wonderful with mimics of Hepburn's physical infirmity, and her voice is coarse.
The second act centers around two long stories, starting with the suicide death of her 15-year-old brother when Kate was a child. She discovered the body of her brother hanging from a beam in the ceiling of his bedroom. This becomes overly dramatic as she seems to be an actress trying to imitate Ms. Hepburn. The second story is about her complex relationship with Spencer Tracy, and she fares much better in telling some wonderful anecdotes on the great actor. She also tells an amusing story about Stephen Sondheim when he was writing Company and living next door to Hepburn in New York. During the second act, she is interrupted by phone calls from Warren Beatty, who wants her to appear in the film Love Affair, which she made in 1994.
Tony Straiges' detailed sets are excellent - they are same sets that graced the Promenade Stage in New York. The lighting design by Kevin Adams is extraordinary, with a hurricane brewing in the first act and a snow storm outside the window in the second act.
Tea at Five plays at the Marine's Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco plays through June 19th. For tickets call 415-771-6900 or at ticketmaster.com.
Crowns comes into the theatre on July 12th and will run through August 21st. The Post Street Theatre will host The Rat Pat Returns in The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey and Dean starting July 7th.