Saturday, August 24, 2002

Tea at Five (Cleveland Play House)

Kate IS Kate at Play House

Every once in a while a theatre-goer has a special encounter. It usually takes place when a play or a performer so enraptures the senses that the viewer loses track of watching a performance and becomes enmeshed with the happenings. This is the case of experiencing Kate Mulgrew transform herself into Katharine Hepburn during The Cleveland Play House’s staging of 'TEA AT FIVE.'

Matthew Lombardo’s portrait of stage and screen legend Katharine Hepburn is being showcased at CPH before its planned New York opening. Though the subject matter is supposedly well researched, one wonders how accurate it really is. Because of Hepburn’s private nature, her granting few interviews and making few public statements the public doesn’t know the real Kate. Yes, facts reveal that she was born May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of wealthy, progressive parents. Her movie and theatrical career was filled with many highs and lows, including her being nominated for a record twelve Academy Awards and the winner of four. She was almost killed in a car crash in 1984, a center point of the play’s second act. She was a woman of great determination with clear goals as demonstrated by her statement, "When I started out, I didn't have any desire to be an actress or to learn how to act. I just wanted to be famous." Her trip toward fame started in 1932 when she starred in her first film, 'A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT.' Her final film appearance was 'LOVE AFFAIR' in 1994. Now 95 she lives in her family home in Connecticut.

Questions abound about Hepburn. Even though she married, was she a lesbian? What was the real story behind her twenty-seven year dysfunctional relationship with Spencer Tracey, her tempestuous equal? How deeply was she scared by her family’s history of suicides, including the death of her fifteen year old brother? Is she presently the victim of short term memory loss and non-responsive? Was she really caustic and abrasive? The play hints at some of the answers, leaves others untouched. Those who are interested in the real dirt will not find everything that inquiring minds want to know from 'TEA AT FIVE,' but there is enough to satisfy most appetites.

Mulgrew, herself, has a long illustrious professional career. Probably best know for her role of Captain Kathryn Janeway on 'STAR TREK: VOYAGER,' she also had leading roles in TV’s 'RYAN’S HOPE,' 'KATE COLUMBO,' 'MURPHY BROWN' and 'CHEERS.' Her list of film and theatre performances is also impressive.

Ms. Mulgrew’s performance as Hepburn far surpasses the quality of the material. Presented as a conversation with the audience, there are often forced moments and missing links. Mulgrew storms right through these flaws. Her voice is Hepburn’s, high pitched, with the familiar crackles in the first act, deeper and well modulated in the second. Her gestures, movements of her cigarette holding hand, her head tilts, her hair flips, her mouth pursing, the Parkinson disease tremors in her speaking and moving are right on target,. She traverses the emotional highs and lows with ease. This is one talented actress giving a tour-de-force performance.

Unlike Hepburn, Mulgrew is “unbelievably lucky in encountering this man (candidate for governor Tim Hagen) whom I love so deeply and admire so much.” The couple split their living time between their Olmsted Township home and an apartment in Manhattan. She states she is “hoping for a home in Columbus next year after my husband is elected governor.”

Capsule judgement: Tickets for 'TEA FOR TWO,' which had a record-setting pre-opening sale, are scarce, but making the effort to obtain ducats is worth the endeavor. Not only is Mulgrew wonderful, but the production values are high. Storm clouds, rain, snow and a complete rebuilding of the Hepburn house between the first and second acts grace the stage.