A good biography stages the illusion that its subject has come back to life. The unfolding of the story mimics the forward momentum of an individual’s development, and no matter how well known the person’s ultimate fate may be, there’s always the lingering fantasy that this time, things might turn out otherwise. Director Jenny Sullivan and actress Stephanie Zimbalist have spent the last several weeks immersed in Matthew Lombardo’s Tea at Five, a two-act stage play about the life of Katharine Hepburn, and based on her best-selling memoir, Me: Stories of My Life. On Thursday, December 3, Ensemble Theatre Company will present the fruit of their collaboration, and audiences will be able to experience the excitement of witnessing one of America’s most legendary actresses revived and inhabited by an exceptionally talented and insightful performer. Zimbalist has done the show once before, in St. Paul at the Ordway Center three years ago, and she is clearly delighted to be back with Jenny Sullivan for this second go-round as the extremely imitable, but nevertheless elusive Kate. I spoke with Sullivan and Zimbalist about the production and about Hepburn’s life story last week.
Stephanie, did you ever meet Katharine Hepburn?
SZ: Yes, I did. She came running up the stairs of the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York where I was doing The Baby Dance with Linda Purl. She cried out “I thought I was the only one!” The fellow she was with ended up giving me a job, so the whole thing worked out quite well. A few years later, in 1992, when I did The Philadelphia Story, I spoke with her on the phone. She offered some tips about how to play the part that were useful.
Was she ever your favorite actress?
SZ: To be honest, she was not even my favorite Hepburn. I preferred Audrey. [Laughter.] Of course she was wonderful, and I have great respect for what she achieved. That voice could be a bit repetitive, though [goes into exaggerated Hepburn quaver]-you know, that whole Yankee thing.
Jenny, how does the play go about telling her story?
JS: The first act is about her career, and the second is about her heart. Even though this is a one-woman show, there are many, many characters conjured through her-something like 40 people in all, and that’s not counting the presence of the house, Fenwick, which is almost like a character in itself.
SZ: Yes, and the tea service is a character as well. The house is an extraordinary story. It was destroyed by a hurricane, and Hepburn was evacuated. Fenwick was swept down the river like an old lady.
What made Katharine Hepburn unique?
SZ: There’s the voice of course, and there was also a tomboyish quality to her, a strength and feistiness that distinguished her from the other glamorous women of Hollywood. She was so beautiful, but she didn’t come across as having to cultivate her glamour.
Is there anything else you think the audience should know going into Tea at Five?
SZ: I came into it thinking that I’d do it as an exercise, to see how it felt to get back into this role, but I have been struck by how entertaining and rapid it is. The two acts fly by at 45 minutes each, yet it is a deep experience of this person. It’s like you are missing someone and it brings them back for that short time.
Tea at Five opens at the Alhecama Theatre on Thursday, December 3, and runs through December 27. There are only four matinee performances in this run. For tickets and info, visit ensembletheatre.com or call 965-5400.