Boston Globe
February 18, 2002
Mulgrew serves up marvelous Hepburn portrayal in 'Tea' 
By Catherine Foster
Globe Staff

HARTFORD - What becomes a legend most?

Perhaps having a play written about you that honors your life without sentimentalizing it, and having a terrific actress star in it.

The legend is Katharine Hepburn, and the actress is Kate Mulgrew, who gives a thoroughbred performance in the world premiere of Matthew Lombardo's bioplay at Hartford Stage, ''Tea at Five.''

The story is set in the Hepburn clan's summer home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, Conn. Act I finds Hepburn back home in 1938 after seven Hollywood flops in a row. Mulgrew (familiar as Captain Kathryn Janeway in the ''Star Trek: Voyager'' series) bounds onstage after a swim, wearing a white terry robe and flipping her long, reddish bob. While she doesn't have Hepburn's angular, spare frame or her carved cheekbones, Mulgrew's got the voice nailed (she refers to herself as ''Heppen''). Under John Tillinger's zippy direction, she strides around and drapes herself over chairs while blitzing us with her opinion of Hollywood, criticism by the press, her many loves, and her family. She's both captivating and annoying as only a '30s movie star can be.

Hepburn's ''star'' shell is so thick, so shellacked, that when she finds out she didn't get the part of Scarlett O'Hara, we see just a hint of hurt feelings, and they're revealed in such a phony ''movie'' fashion, one wonders if we will ever see what really makes this woman tick.

Things change dramatically in Act II. The set is now Fenwick circa 1983. The stiff furnishings have been replaced with a softer look and folk art. The 76-year-old Hepburn is seen facing upstage, but even from behind it's clear that Mulgrew has become her; she's not just doing a good job of ''doing'' her. The upswept gray curls, the downturned red slash of a mouth, the quavering voice, and the tremor are instantly recognizable.

If Act I is a series of little bits that convey the events of Hepburn's life, Act II offers sustained stories that reveal how those events have shaped her. The suicide at age 15 of her beloved brother, Tom, and her parents' refusal to mourn his death turned her quickly into an adult. Much of the play deals with her fight to free herself from the conventionality of Hartford life and of her longing to be someone's ''best girl,'' although her 30-year relationship with Spencer Tracy gets surprisingly short shrift here. (The play's title, by the way, refers to the family's habit of convening at 5 p.m. for tea and interesting conversation, one Hepburn maintains throughout her life. The people who matter to her, unfortunately, all die on her.)

In Act II, the pain in Hepburn's life has softened her. Whereas in the first act, she slaps people who are rude to her, she now confronts them directly but with dignity.

While the play on the whole is well paced, there's one place that jars: Hepburn rattles off a pastiche of famous lines from her films and less-famous lines from conversations with real people. It's a bit histrionic, and her collapse at the end of it fools the audience into thinking the play is over.

Mulgrew is great throughout, but in one unscripted moment, she particularly shone. She went to the fireplace to look at photos on the mantle, which abruptly crashed down. With perfect aplomb, she picked up a picture frame and repeated a previous line, ''Time levels ...'' and added her own twist, ''other things as well.'' The audience roared. Not just because she saved herself, but because she did it with such professionalism and panache.

Hepburn would love it.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.