Boston Herald

Katharine Hepburn homage fits to a Tea

By Robert Nesti

Wednesday, December 9, 2004

The late Katharine Hepburn is turning up everywhere these days. At the movies, Cate Blanchett offers a priceless impersonation of the tomboyish actress in ``The Aviator,'' while onstage Kate Mulgrew in ``Tea at Five'' does her one better by giving audiences two Hepburns - the feisty actress in the 1930s, and her older, more restrained self some 30-odd years later.

In fact, her physical recreation of the older Hepburn is so startling that the audience gasps when she appears at the top of the second half. Moving haltingly due to a broken ankle and shaking from the onset of Parkinson's disease, Mulgrew touches the audience without even speaking a word.

And when she does, she captures Hepburn's famous, cultured bray perfectly. This is not so much a caricature as an embodiment of Hepburn's unique personal style. Indeed what little tension there is in Matthew Lombardo's text comes from the juxtaposition of the lithe, athletic Kate and her older counterpart. It's a meticulous transformation, and the play is carried by it.

Set in her Connecticut retreat, the script catches her at two decidedly downbeat moments: in 1938 when she returned from Hollywood after being labeled ``box office poison,'' and in 1983 immediately upon her decision to retire from movies altogether.

What Lombardo does is string together the key incidents in Hepburn's life and telescopes them into an intimate two-hour gabfest. Her battles in Hollywood and Broadway, her conflicted relationship with her parents, and her determination to be a star, are carefully shoehorned into this monologue.

The best news is that Mulgrew is as fresh as she was when she first played the part two years ago at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. As she gossips about celebrities, nails gossip columnists, and her fellow actresses, she's great fun; and she's quite touching in the more reflective second part when she addresses the suicide of her brother Tom and her affair with Spencer Tracy, and her own insecurities about growing old. ``Tea at Five'' is little more than a valentine to Hepburn's unconventional spirit, but with Mulgrew at the helm, who can resist?