The Baltimore Sun
Mulgrew brings Hepburn to life
'Tea at Five' portrays the actress over 45 years
  By J. Wynn Rousuck
Sun Theater Critic
 January 20, 2005
Katharine Hepburn once stopped her younger brother Richard from producing a play he'd written about her. Or more specifically, "about this self-centered movie actress who, after having been blackballed from Hollywood, moves into the family beach house in Connecticut."

Those words are spoken by actress Kate Mulgrew in Matthew Lombardo's Tea at Five at the Hippodrome Theatre, and that's how we find Hepburn -- in retreat and dubbed "box office poison" after seven flops in a row -- at the start of this one-woman biographical play.

Hepburn was still alive when Tea at Five debuted three years ago at Hartford Stage, in the Connecticut town where she was born. But though Lombardo's script was denigrated by Hepburn's niece, on behalf of the family, the star herself did nothing to stop it.

Indeed, it went on to an off-Broadway run and is now on a limited tour. The script has some odd moments (the references to gonorrhea that crop up in each act, for example) and it lapses into pop psychology in its inferences about the impact of Hepburn's older brother's suicide at age 15.

But it's not a hatchet job by any means. And, bearing a decided resemblance to Hepburn, Mulgrew -- for whom Lombardo wrote Tea at Five -- is a natural in the role. Not that the script makes it easy for her. To the contrary, it requires her to make a considerable acting leap, aging 45 years, from 31 to 76, between Acts One and Two.

And though her old-age makeup looks overstated -- particularly around the eyes -- Mulgrew's body language and inflections leave no doubt that we are seeing a matured, ailing version of the same assertive New Englander we met at the start of the evening.

In the first act we learn that legendary director Jed Harris accused Hepburn of "posing" and "striking an attitude" when she was rehearsing The Lake (the play in which the actress delivered her oft-imitated "calla lilies are in bloom" line). Mulgrew strikes more than a few poses in this act. After intermission, she trades the golf club she swings in Act One for a cane, and her gestures become more contained.

But her attitude remains as feisty as ever, whether Hepburn is complaining about household help or re-enacting her fury at her Manhattan neighbor, composer Stephen Sondheim, for the late-night hours in which he "did not just play the piano. He abused it."

At this point, with only about 15 minutes left in the show, Hepburn finally raises the topic she figures the audience is eager to hear about -- her 27-year love affair with Spencer Tracy. (In this respect the play mimics Hepburn's 418-page memoir, Me, which doesn't deal with Tracy until page 389.)

Hepburn's definition of love puts this strong woman in such a doormat-like position, it drew nervous laughter from the opening night audience at the Hippodrome, but the definition is true to that in her memoir.

Tea at Five is the first one-person show to play the renovated Hippodrome (another, Say Goodnight Gracie, opens next month). Hepburn is a grand enough figure, and Mulgrew's portrayal -- directed by John Tillinger -- captures that grandeur sufficiently to hold the large stage.

Designer Tony Straiges' beach-house set, on the other hand, is dwarfed and has to be framed by wide black masking. But that's not as unsettling as John Gromada's sound design, which, even in a small theater, would reek of melodrama as it introduces thunder and lightning at emotionally charged moments.

One of the most forced moments in Tea at Five, however, comes at the end when Lombardo has Hepburn ask, "What was it all for?" Besides the obvious answer of capitalizing on the fame of a movie star, the same question might be asked about this play. But while offering few insights into Hepburn's soul, it does provide Mulgrew with a plum role, and the actress handles that with spirit and dignity.

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