The Beacon Journal
Monday, August 26, 2002

Actress's character a tempest with a teapot
Kate Mulgrew captures Hepburn in uncanny tribute, 
`Tea at Five'
By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

Americans have long had a love affair with Hollywood icons, especially the ``First Lady of Cinema,'' Katharine Hepburn.

Many have asked who this tomboyish woman really is, born of privilege and possessed with a drive and grit that led her to 12 Oscar nominations and four wins during a 62-year movie career. Matthew Lombardo's Tea at Five, playing at Cleveland Play House, aims to answer some of those questions with an intimate look at Hepburn's career and relationships.

This play doesn't afford high drama, but it's an interesting tete-a-tete during which Hepburn gives the audience -- her tea guests -- insight into her personal relationships and career drive.

Lombardo has surely taken plenty of artistic license to create this work, based on heavy research including Hepburn's autobiography and other biographical material. Out of respect to the actress, whenever differing stories were discovered, Lombardo has said he chose Hepburn's version for his one-woman play.

The playwright created Tea at Five specifically for actress Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager fame. Mulgrew has long been told she looks and sounds like Hepburn, which inspired Lombardo in this work.

The similarities go beyond Mulgrew's slim physique and perfected, upper-crust, New England accent. This Kate (Mulgrew) is a natural fit as Kate the Great, radiating beauty and elegant ease in an off-white signature Hepburn pantsuit as she brings the outspoken icon to life.

This play could never fully cover Hepburn's rich career, but it hits a number of highs and lows. Mulgrew single-handedly holds our attention for nearly two hours as her Hepburn drolly speaks of her box office failure, difficulty with an unbearable Broadway director, and her anxiousness to win the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

The younger Hepburn was an independent-minded woman who didn't give a hoot what others thought. It didn't hurt that she had freedom to buy rights to her scripts and make her way in Hollywood on her own terms.

Lombardo has made a bold move producing this play now, considering the 95-year-old Hepburn is alive and living in Connecticut. Family members have complained that the play sensationalizes Hepburn, yet I believe it does not.

Under the direction of John Tillinger, Mulgrew's Hepburn comes across as witty, self-effacing and honest about her selfishness. She speaks frankly about her short-lived early marriage to Ludlow ``Luddy'' Ogden Smith.

The second act of this play is more interesting than the first, featuring a funnier, more sarcastic Hepburn 45 years later. Yet the audience sees Hepburn's deepest vulnerability when the character speaks of her deep love for both her brother and fellow actor Spencer Tracy. Mulgrew's second-act transformation into a sassy, 76-year-old Hepburn is breathtaking. The minute Mulgrew turned around at Sunday's performance, the audience gasped and the theater exploded with clapping.

Mulgrew's now-gray hair is worn in a loose knot, with just the right amount of tendrils hanging down. Mulgrew has the aged Hepburn's head bobbing and gravelly, quaky voice down pat.

Tea at Five is a work in progress, premiering in February in Hepburn's hometown of Hartford. Lombardo has tweaked the script further for the Cleveland run as producers test different markets in an effort to move the show to Broadway.

Awkward points in the script include Hepburn's allusion to her divorce, and an anecdote about the teen-aged Hepburn and her emotionally closed father after her brother's death.