It takes a lot of guts to play Katherine Hepburn. The voice and mannerisms that made her a star are so distinctive that they remain in our mind’s eye. She was simply formidable. Much like playing Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow,” the challenge for the actor is getting the audience to suspend their disbelief. We know the cadences of icons and can hear them in our head. Luckily, Janis Stevens is up to the task. She’s refrained from a full impersonation vocally, which is a good choice. Because at 92, the real Kate was almost a caricature of her younger self. Stevens captures all the physical quirks that are so embedded in our psyche. The manner in which she holds her hands, how she throws her trouser-clad leg over a chair, the way she tilts her head and juts her patrician jaw.
Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn
American Stage Digital Theatre
727-823-PLAY (7529); americanstage.org
Tickets: $15; through Nov. 29
Playwright Rick Foster has used a failing 92-year-old, wheelchair bound, Katherine Hepburn to reflect upon Socrates’ “unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s the eve of Y2K. Kate is haunted by a family tragedy and the stoic nature of the Hepburn clan. “Did I cry?” she asks. “I don’t know. I never ask myself.” She proclaims that we create the story of our so-called lives, forgetting everything that doesn’t fit that script. “Dreams,” her urologist father proclaims, “are the brain’s urination.”
Foster’s script takes us on a reflective journey. How do we face the challenges of aging? What are we to do when we can no longer live the life we’ve known? What if the last chapter of our life is erased by dementia even as it’s being written?
Kate envies her celebrated costars, Bogart, Tracy, and Fonda—who all died on a high after snatching their Oscars. But the inimitable Hepburn lives well beyond her celebrated Oscar performances. “Why couldn’t I get out while the getting’s good?” Now, as she reflects upon her life surrounded by an attic full of mostly obsolete artifacts, she battles with philosophical questions we all face in our waning days—what did I do with my life and did it matter?
She chronicles her career trajectory from meeting George Cukor (with whom she would make 10 films) to an early Oscar win and then her infamous period as box office poison. She took charge of her comeback with “The Philadelphia Story” on Broadway, which paved the way for the popular film that put her career back on track once and for all.
The virtual experience feels live. Of course, you’re not aware that it’s also communal. When I watched on opening night, everything was fine for 40 minutes. Then there was a glitch in my sound where Kate’s voice was going in and out. My screen finally froze and the image was buffering. I decided to start over and all was well again. I only add this because I’ve seen streaming issues on TV throughout the pandemic. I’m sure American Stage has solved any issues on their end; so don’t hesitate to reboot on yours.
Production designer Jerid Fox lends his usual attention to detail. Hepburn’s attic room is absolutely chock full of evocative touches—a steamer trunk, a nautical captain’s wheel, a tufted wing chair, a cathedral vacuum tube radio, and on and on. The octagonal divided light window upstage at first seems just to be a pathway to admiring the stars that twinkle outside of the attic. But as Kate regales us with stories of her family and her films, we’re able to glimpse a literal reflection of complicated emotional lives—embers, rain, fireworks, frost, and ultimately, a new dawn.
Director Benjamin T. Ismail’s staging is based on Peter Sander’s pre-COVID-19 production that Stevens performed from Sacramento to Philadelphia. Ismail’s two main cameras allow both wide shots and closeups for intimacy. He’s capturing a live performance, though, so there’s not always the precision that editing allows. There’s effective use of direct address and a surprising camera angle that adds dramatic oomph not possible in the theatre. But the space is small and the movement is busy. Stevens is so strong that it doesn’t matter much, but since there’s no live audience, the cameras could do the work to replace some stage movement—or vice-versa. Gail Russell’s spot-on costume puts Hepburn in her ubiquitous trousers and turtleneck plus a plaid over shirt in fall colors that echo the autumn of her life themes.
Kate confesses that she identifies with Eleanor of Aquitaine, her Oscar-winning role in “The Lion in Winter,” a dysfunctional family study of Henry II (Peter O’Toole). At a particular nadir, O’Toole asks why she’s smiling? “It’s in the goddamn script.” But, also, the Hepburn way. “It’s how I confront despair.” And, now, in this time of COVID-19, as we all struggle for a sense of normalcy, American Stage importantly evokes the spirit of Kate as a force of nature. It prompts us all to ask: how do we face loss, aging, and living our best life?
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