The veil of privacy Katharine Hepburn has so assiduously kept in place for most of her remarkable career is breached, fictionally at least, in this polished if unsurprising bio-play, which differs from a raft of similar celebrity tell-all shows primarily in that its subject is still alive.
Not to worry — there’s little to cause offense here. Matthew Lombardo’s play is an affectionate portrait that depicts Hepburn meeting life’s challenges at two distant junctures in her career with the same mixture of sharp wit, common sense and stiff-backed courage, notwithstanding a few delicately revealed chinks in the emotional armor. It’s a skillfully constructed and thoroughly workmanlike bio-drama, but Kate Mulgrew’s remarkable performance infuses it with crisp, appealing life, not to mention eerie verisimilitude.
She presents us with not one but two uncannily exact impersonations of a seemingly inimitable performer, both gracefully shaped by director John Tillinger. And Mulgrew is not just a skilled impersonator, but an actress of real sensitivities: On the rare occasions when the text allows it to, her performance moves beyond entertaining mimicry into a deeper kind of emotional identification that allows us to forget the voyeuristic aspects of the evening and experience it on a richer, more satisfying level.
Mulgrew’s actual resemblance to Hepburn is hardly outstanding, but her mastery of the actress’s vocal and physical mannerisms certainly is. The mid-Atlantic accent strays a little too far east at times, but the clipped, slightly nasal Yankee twang and the utterly distinctive inflections — evoking everything from delicate winsomeness to forceful scorn — are precisely those of the Hepburn who flickered across movie screens for most of the 20th century. The clenched, jutting jaw and the mannish stride are also captured to perfection in the play’s first act, set at the family home on the Connecticut shore in 1938.
Hepburn has retreated from Hollywood to salve her wounded pride. After a string of flops, she has been labeled “box office poison” by movie distributors. She sees career salvation in securing the juiciest, most hotly contested role in Hollywood history: Scarlett O’Hara. In between phone calls — from her agent, from the wayward brother whose dramatic expose of her life she’s intent on quashing — Hepburn rather improbably regales us with tales of her professional triumphs and disappointments, mixed in with small morsels of personal reflection, mostly focusing on the quirks of her family, notably a domineering father.
The playwright has found a convincing voice for his famously private subject, drawing on the chatty but emotionally opaque style of her bluntly titled autobiography, “Me.” Lombardo’s Hepburn is forthright but eloquent, fiercely proud and determined to hold on to the career that has given her life its meaning. But he doesn’t really give her much of interest to say. The text is mostly a fluid, sometimes amusingly footnoted resume (“Leland Hayward was briefly my lover prior to becoming my agent. Tragically he excelled at neither”). There are occasional ruminations of a larger kind, as when she describes her complacent solitude as “the sacrifice one makes in order to get somewhere in life.”
But revelations are few, and the interest is primarily held by watching Mulgrew unveil more aspects of her remarkable simulacrum of the star — a breathtakingly correct angling of the head here, the cat-that-ate-the-canary sparkle in the eye there. It is only in the play’s second act, which takes place in 1983, that the actress is allowed to span a range of feeling somewhat wider than that famously described by Dorothy Parker, reviewing Hepburn’s performance in “The Lake”: You know, the one about running the gamut of emotions from A to B.
Parkinson’s disease has taken hold, so the wagging head that became an oddly touching aspect of Hepburn’s later screen performances is in evidence. Mulgrew deftly mimics both this physical infirmity and the particular changes that the disease — and of course, age — wrought on Hepburn’s crisply metallic voice. The string of anecdotes continues, in between the phone calls — Warren Beatty is wooing her for a screen return — but the play finally makes room for larger, more introspective passages.
As Hepburn reflects on her complicated relationship with Spencer Tracy, for example, Mulgrew’s finely shaded performance allows us to forget the fame of the participants and connect with the character on a deeper level, lamenting the sad irony that a proud, accomplished woman could find real love only in humbling, even humiliating circumstances.
And the suicide of Hepburn’s beloved older brother Tom, alluded to in the first act, is the subject of another long monologue that allows Mulgrew to flesh out her subject’s interior life. Hepburn is overcome by emotion as she recalls discovering the body dangling from the ceiling in her aunt’s attic (she was just 14 at the time). The weathered voice gives out, and the character is suddenly, strikingly at a loss for words. Deep grief shines vividly in eyes that suddenly lose the mischievous glitter they’ve retained into old age. At such times “Tea at Five” ceases to be merely an appointment with the familiar, and becomes a poignant exploration of the universal joy and anguish of love and loss.