South Florida Sun Sentinel

Mulgrew channels Hepburn

November 6, 2003 
By Jack Zink 
Theater Writer

Kate Mulgrew as Katharine Hepburn? Made for each other, and for the Cuillo Centre. Tea at Five, the play Matthew Lombardo wrote for Mulgrew about Hepburn, is another soul-baring solo docudrama on what has become a very big shelf.

But it's not just another celebrity-on-celebrity turn. Mulgrew delivers a performance that fulfills Lombardo's examination of the icon, while claiming vast theatrical territory for herself as an actress.

Since the play's debut last year, photos have depicted Mulgrew only in the first act, when she portrays Hepburn at age 31. It's 1938, just before Hepburn is about to break out of a career slump. She's vivacious, spiny, incredibly self-aware, pushy, yet somehow inviting.

The script makes no allowance for the audience's presence, the most critical juncture in a monodrama for most playwrights. Mulgrew simply, casually, takes that rock off Lombardo's back with a glance and ever-so-slight vocal indication of acknowledgment, making it seem as though life is indeed a stage and we viewers are part of this diva's every waking moment.

In a stylish white pantsuit and flowing red hair, the vibrant Kate engages in some first-person "Hollywood Confidential" that reinforces the conventional Hepburn mystique.

A storm brews for effect via Kevin Adams' lighting and John Gromada's sound, wafting through Tony Straiges' set. It's the living room of the Hepburn family's estate in Fenwick, Conn., a somewhat rustic, perfectly kept getaway from city life. John Tillinger's direction is almost invisible, making it seem as if Mulgrew's task within that environment is easy.

After intermission, Mulgrew returns as a 76-year-old Hepburn in 1983, retired and ready to spill the beans to us about the really important moments in her life. The lips that smacked ever so subtly in Act One are now wobbly red frames around her mouth. The eyes that danced only ballets are now bugged and jumpy.

The effects of Parkinson's Disease are obvious. From within this shell, Mulgrew continues to show her acting mettle. Storytelling becomes flashback; old emotions moisten and choke her heart again. And ours.