It's got all the dramaturgical creakiness and unabashed name-dropping one associates with famous-person-ruminating-onstage vehicles. But darned if Melissa Carlson's game-and-gamine turn for First Folio Theatre as Katharine Hepburn in Matthew Lombardo's "Tea at Five" didn't win me over, despite the character's trademark prickly-pear persona. And it wasn't only because Carlson exhibited admirable Hepburn-like grace under pressure when an audience member experienced a medical emergency (all ended well, thankfully) near the end of the performance I attended.
Lombardo creates a diptych of Hepburn's life, with the first act taking place in 1938. A hurricane is nipping at the heels of the Hepburn family home in Fenwick, Conn. (Angela Miller's set is a cunning and thoughtful exercise in casual art deco chic.) And Hurricane Kate alternately rages over being labeled "box office poison" after a string of flops, and berating/begging her agent and onetime lover, Leland Hayward, over the phone to get her the role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" — which of course doesn't happen. But in Lombardo's free-handed adaptation of Kate's life, she fortuitously gets the script that will put her back in Hollywood's Glitter Gulch — Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story" — from another former lover, Howard Hughes.
The second act finds her again at Fenwick in 1983 — the house was rebuilt, she tells us, after that '38 hurricane swept it away. Hepburn is rebuilding herself in exile from Hollywood after an auto accident has left her in a walking cast, and is also battling the effects of Parkinson's disease. This time, she's the one being besieged by calls — Warren Beatty is after her for a project. (This particular element is confounding, inasmuch as one presumes that he's trying to get her to sign on to "Love Affair," the remake of "An Affair to Remember" that Beatty and Annette Bening did with Hepburn — in 1994.)
Fittingly, being back in her family homestead causes Hepburn to recall the most painful episode of her life: the suicide of her older brother, Tom, who hanged himself on a trip to Greenwich Village, leaving his adoring little sister to find his body. Lombardo's script — and the prominent placement of Tom's photo — suggests that he is the key to understanding Kate's buried anguish.
Oddly, little about Hepburn's decades-long affair with married man Spencer Tracy makes it into the play. (Lombardo drew heavily on Hepburn's 1991 memoir, "Me: Stories of My Life" — a title that, like its author, managed to be narcissistic and self-effacing at the same time.) But Carlson plays the moment when Hepburn bids farewell to her greatest partner, on and off screen, with heartbreaking clarity.
One is, perhaps inevitably, distracted at first by comparing Carlson's clenched-jaw patrician accent with the real-life Hepburn — it's like watching a master mimic who hasn't quite reached the spine of the character. And Lombardo, like so many other creators of this genre, doesn't address the question of just whom Hepburn is addressing — and why. But Carlson (directed ably by Alison C. Vesely) unpeels the legend's complicated layers with increasing assurance — and her whip-thin, chiseled-cheek appearance, abetted by costumer Elsa Hiltner's stylish re-creation of Hepburn's trademark trousers-and-blouse ensemble, makes for a suitable physical simulacrum. Eventually, the annoying contrivances of Lombardo's too-tidy exploration of Hepburn's psyche and penchant for dishy Hollywood gossip don't tarnish the vinegary but addictive star power of Carlson's Kate the Great.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st Street and Illinois Highway 83, Oak Brook
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes