Angela Iannone peels Katharine Hepburn’s layers
Katharine Hepburn, like many movie actors of her day, almost always played some version of herself. When was a Hepburn character not assertive, frank, formidable, intelligent, volatile, and endowed with a peculiar and instantly recognizable manner of speech?
Angela Iannone channels, with uncanny accuracy, the Hepburn we know from the movies in Act 1 of Matthew Lombardo’s Tea at Five. Under Chris Flieller’s direction, Iannone presents Hepburn as a theatrical personage, someone who has constructed herself and plays some version of herself even when offstage.
The conceit is that we been invited to afternoon tea — a Hepburn family ritual Kate maintained — on Sept. 21, 1938, in Act 1, and on Feb. 14, 1983, in Act 2, at the family home in Connecticut. We’re confidantes; she takes phone calls, then fills us in on her feelings about the dear or dimwit on the other end of the line.
In Act 1, even with us insiders, Iannone’s Kate is on. Iannone is meticulous with that Hepburn presentational posture: Pulled up, in the ballet way, to extend the spine and show athletic form. She raises her chin, to create an imperious tilt that makes for looking down the nose at the world. She wears mannish trousers and saddle shoes (costumes by Ellen Cotey). She thinks nothing of standing on the sofa to strike a pose. She likes to be prickly, naughty, outrageous, tough. She’s interesting and engaging, but not all that likable, with a big ego and little insight about herself.
Iannone’s Hepburn defiantly exaggerates her own worst qualities in reaction to some setbacks. Hepburn retreated to Connecticut in 1938 because her film career was flagging and her abrasive personality has turned Hollywood and the public against her.
It’s as if she’s getting to know and trust us, her guests at tea, more and more as the two afternoons wear on. The character becomes more frank, real, rounded and vulnerable. The posture starts to go, just a little. Iannone gives us a glimpse of Hepburn’s tension as she awaits a phone call from Hollywood. Poor, deluded Kate is banking on landing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind to relaunch her career. The thought of her as a Southern belle is preposterous to everyone but her. When she gets the bad news about Scarlett late in Act 1, Iannone lets the facade crumble as she bursts into tears. From then on, we’re not just amused and impressed, we’re on Kate’s side.
In Act 2, Hepburn is 75. She’s nursing a broken ankle from a car accident, and palsy has set her head nodding and her hands trembling. On Golden Pond is already behind her. Iannone, with a little help from make-up and Anthony Mackie’s wig, makes an utterly convincing transition. The trembling is constant, yet not distracting.
But more important, we’re now old friends, and Kate’s guard is down. She’s ready to talk about the taboo subjects: her brother’s suicide and her 27-year affair with Spencer Tracy. (It helps that Hepburn’s life was truly fascinating.) She has gained insight with age and can laugh at herself. She’s still ornery, to be sure, but no longer for effect. In Act 2, Iannone gets down to the real Katharine Hepburn.
In Tandem Theatre and Iannone have revived this one-woman show, which they also mounted in the fall of 2009. Tea at Five runs through Aug. 21 at the Tenth Street Theatre. For tickets, call 414 271-1371, or visit the In Tandem website.