Mulgrew Shines in Brisk, Satisfying
What a pleasure it is to watch as Kate Mulgrew becomes Kate Hepburn in Matthew Lombardo's one-woman play Tea at Five. Not to take anything away from Mulgrew's excellent work on television's Star Trek Voyager, but it must be very satisfying to this always compelling actress to portray this legend of the stage and screen, because she gives it her all, under the assured directorial hand of John Tillinger (who also directed the late Frank Gorshin in a one-man George Burns show, Goodnight, Gracie.
Lombardo gives us two distinct eras in Hepburn's life. The first act finds a pensive Hepburn, fresh from her split with Howard Hughes and going nowhere fast. She is ensconced at her family home, having been deemed "box-office poison" after several films tanked at the box office (unsurprisingly, several of them are held in high esteem by latter day critics and audiences). This Kate (roughly at the same age and physical appearance as was portrayed by another Cate - Blanchett - in her lauded supporting turn as Hepburn in Scorsese's The Aviator) relates tales of her eccentric family and pre-Hollywood struggles on the stage, which often ended up in her being fired. Though often recounted by Hepburn herself and her biographers, Mulgrew has special fun relating the star's most disastrous stage role in The Lake, which ended up being excerpted as the play in which Hepburn's Terry Randall rises to stardom in Hepburn's film Stage Door. But act one ends on an auspicious note, as Hepburn receives a present from old beau Howard Hughes: a little script sure to be a cure for off box-office poison, The Philadelphia Story.
Act two is set some fifty-odd years later, as the elderly Hepburn, once again at the family estate, recuperates from a fender bender, copes with increasing palsy and other infirmities, and chastises Warren Beatty, via telephone, for trying to lure her out of retirement to appear in his film Love Affair. The territory covered here gives Mulgrew richer story to play, and between her make-up, costuming and total understanding of Hepburn, it is hard at moments not to find yourself feeling you are watching Kate Hepburn, and not Kate Mulgrew. There is hilarity in her irascible relationship with neighbor Stephen Sondheim, poignancy and no self pity in recollections of the Tracy/Hepburn relationship, and a gut-wrenching scene in which the tragic suicide of her favorite sibling is recalled. The play ends on a comforting note of Yankee indestructibility, as Hepburn finally accepts Beatty's comeback offer, for what would be her final theatrical film role.
Tony Straiges' scenic design feels eminently right and surely was thoroughly researched, taking into account the changes in the décor of the Hepburn home due to the ravages of time and ill-weather, and it is becomingly lit by lighting designer Paul Black (based on an original design by Kevin Adams). Costume designer Jess Goldstein has done his homework admirably, outfitting Mulgrew in outfits that could seemingly have hung in Hepburn's own closets. Paul Huntley's wigs complete the transformation from the coltish young Hepburn to the venerable figure we are all more familiar with.
Tea At Five was originally due at the Seattle Rep last fall, before a personal emergency forced Mulgrew to postpone her return to the theatre she had once called home. Better late than never, it is a snappily paced, bracingly performed tour-de-force, and if you are a Hepburn or Mulgrew fan, an absolute must see.
Tea At Five runs through May 29, 2005 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, at the corner of Second Ave. and Mercer St., in Seattle Center. For more information visit www.seattlerep.org.