Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn

There is a moment in theater that I just love. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s magical. It’s that moment when the actor on stage has so engaged the audience and they are giving him or her such rapt attention that you can almost feel the silence.

Most of the time you hear people moving in their seats or other soft, unobtrusive noise. But in the magical moment, you can literally hear a pin drop.

I heard that moment several times at the opening-night performance of the world premiere of “Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn” by Rick Foster, now at the Sacramento Theatre Company, under the direction of Peter Sander.

Janis Stevens so embodies the character of Katharine, and gets more and more inside her as the play progresses, that by the last quarter, there is no longer any doubt about who is sitting on that stage talking to you.

It’s all Mitch Agruss’ fault.

The Grand Old Man of Sacramento Theater (whom some may remember from his television days as “Captain Mitch”) was watching a Katharine Hepburn interview a while back, when it hit him that Hepburn would make a great character for his friend Janis Stevens, who already had won critical acclaim for her one-woman shows such as “Vivien” (about Vivien Leigh) and “Master Class” (about Maria Callas).

So he contacted their friend, playwright Rick Foster (who had written “Vivien”), with his idea. Stevens was intrigued, Foster did some research on Hepburn, and now it has come to life on STC’s Pollock Stage.

The time is New Year’s Eve, 1999, and the setting is a bleak attic, where Katharine, age 92, sits in a wheelchair and begins speaking with the audience. She explains that she entered the “undiscovered country” of old age at age 90 and now, at 92, she’s trying to create a map for how the rest of her life should go.

Joining Stevens is Marty Parker in the small role of the long-suffering Mr. Rotterdam, a non-speaking role, but he is there to help Miss Hepburn and to be bossed around by her. Playwright Foster says we don’t know if he is a stage hand or a personal assistant or something else, but it is up to the audience to decide for themselves who he is.

As she begins her soliloquy, Katharine reflects on her family, who she assures us were perfect (though she also remarks sadly, several times, that she never made her mother proud and that her mother never saw any of her movies).

The Hepburns were the stiff-upper-lip New Englanders who were so detached from their feelings that after their oldest son Tom took his life when Katharine was 13 (she found the body), his name was never spoken in the family again, after his funeral. In fact, Katharine took Tom’s birthdate, Nov. 8 (coincidentally the date this play premiered, and the birthdate of Janis Stevens!) as her own for many years as a tribute to her brother, who still haunts her 92-year-old self.

She shares with the audiences her various romances with Howard Hughes (“yes, that one,” she says, coyly) and others, but saves her heartfelt feelings for Spencer Tracy, with whom she spent 27 years (and then would not attend his funeral out of respect for his wife). The ache of his loss is still visible on her face when she discusses him.

We get a picture of a surprisingly insecure Katharine, who pushed herself to step outside the box. She was the first artist to buy a property (“The Philadelphia Story”) for herself and go head-to-head with the studio bosses and not only win their battles, but an Oscar to boot.

The performance of Janis Stevens in this role is one you will long remember. She exudes Hepburn’s indomitable spirit without trying to become a caricature. She doesn’t just play Hepburn, she is Hepburn.

Treat yourself to this once-in-a-lifetime performance. You won’t be sorry.

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