Sunday, December 6, 2009

review - Tea at Five

Tea at Five
by Matthew Lombardo
directed by Jenny Sullivan
Ensemble Theatre Company,
Santa Barbara
through December 27

Few actresses have the look, talent or audacity to portray legendary, larger-than-life Katharine Hepburn. Let's face it, she was an awesome figure and had a distinct manner of walking, talking and just being... well, Kate. Like Kate Mulgrew before her, Stephanie Zimbalist has the right look and acting chops to fit the bill, and succeeds quite astonishingly.

In Matthew Lombardo's one-woman play Tea at Five, Zimbalist plays Hepburn first in 1938 and 45 years later in 1983. In Act I, Hepburn enters the living room of her Fenwick, Connecticut home (meticulous scenic design by Neil Prince and set dressing) at a time when she had left Hollywood. Branded box office poison yet still thoroughly optimistic at being cast as Scarlett O'Hara in the then upcoming Gone with the Wind, Hepburn wanted stardom. Sporting long, fiery red-hair and wearing the characteristic slacks, Zimbalist plays Hepburn with most of the physicality down pat and with all the youthful feisty arrogance, but somehow holds back on the distinctive Hepburn voice, giving merely an essence of those patrician vocal intonations. That aside, everything else is fine. The look, the stride, leg up on the sofa, sitting down and leaning forward like a truckdriver... her impetuousness, impatience and insecurity are totally convincing. This was the very private Hepburn that we did not know but had only heard about: bold, abrasive, brazen, yet girlishly unsteady and not fully aware of who she was or where she was going.

In Act II we get the retired Hepburn, about mid seventies, who is being wooed by Warren Beatty to play his grandmother in the remake film Love Affair. This is a far more fragile Hepburn, limping around the living room (great detailed set decorations) with a broken ankle in a cast, due to an automobile accident...and head and hands shaking and voice quaking due to Parkinson's- although she denied having it. She was stubborn and headstrong, but loveable: the Hepburn we had come to trust and admire. Due to her television interviews and increased TV special movie appearances, Hepburn had made herself more accessible to the public. Here Zimbalist is in her glory playing the aged Hepburn to the hilt. Hair now mixed grey & up in a bun, wearing slacks, turtle neck and over it a man's long-sleeve work shirt and characteristic outer red sweater tied around her shoulders, Zimbalist brings out Hepburn's brutal sense of honesty, wisdom, eccentric humor and extreme sensitivity. Her monologue about brother Tom and his suicide at age 15 is heartbreakingly rendered.

Lombardo's script is crisp and well written, laced with abundant humor, and clearly separating the young fiery, insecure Hepburn from the older more stable one. However, there is no reason for the play's existence - Is she being interviewed for a memoir or documentary? No! - other than to present Hepburn the curiosity to an inquisitive audience.

Sullivan's direction of Zimbalist is admirable. The pacing is brisk and she keeps the actress in perpetual motion. Zimbalist is a miraculous actor, who immerses herself fully in the characterization, never fearing to dig deep. Apart from needing to make her voice more Hepburnish in Act I, her performance is nothing short of brilliant.

4 out of 5 stars


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