Through it all, Davidson skips ladylike around the simple set, pouring tea, chatting on the phone and telling stories. Telling stories is what the actress does best because she gets to use that marvelous, beautiful, amazing, mellifluous opera-trained voice that draws you into the action so easily. – NDN, Chris Silk
NAPLES — One lump or two? Milk? How about a surging round of applause? That’s the conclusion of Joy Davidson’s one-woman show “Tea at Five,” which examines the life of screen legend Katharine Hepburn. Captivated by Davidson’s powerful voice, audiences sat enthralled for two hours.
“Tea at Five,” from Matthew Lombardo, picks two occasions in Hepburn’s life. Audiences see the actress in September 1938, after a series of under-performing films sees her labeled “box office poison” and again in February 1983. If the script sometimes wanders in search of a deeper theme, Hepburn’s vibrant spirit and independence shines. Lombardo also sprinkles in amusing anecdotes from Hepburn’s career.
Davidson, dressed in stylish black slacks and a glittering ebony pullover for the first half, manages to embody the sheer presence that Hepburn would have radiated. The actress’s stage persona, diction and magnificent voice captures the attention and holds the room spellbound while her Hepburn creation holds court.
In the 1938 segment, Hepburn retreats to the family home in Connecticut after a series of failed movies. Even though she’s won an Oscar (1933′s “Morning Glory”), Hollywood and the press had turned its back on her.
Director Annette Trossbach, the founder and artistic director of the Laboratory Theater of Florida, plays up Hepburn’s girlish qualities during this half. Davidson bounces and lounges on the ornate loveseat, curls into the chair and squeals into the telephone.
Phone conversations run through the show, offering a glimpse of the outside world. During this half, Hepburn pursues the role of Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” calling agents and demanding updates. Ex-husbands also ring. Watching Davidson coo and snarl into the phone – especially when the audience knows the eventual outcome – delights. The outburst over Vivian Leigh – when it comes – brings peals of laughter.
Through it all, Davidson skips ladylike around the simple set, pouring tea, chatting on the phone and telling stories. Telling stories is what the actress does best because she gets to use that marvelous, beautiful, amazing, mellifluous opera-trained voice that draws you into the action so easily.
Kate taking voice lessons. Kate trying to blow out a candle by aspirating the letter “H.” Kate going on as the understudy in her first play – and failing. Kate getting married. Kate triumphing on Broadway after making an entrance carrying a stag over her shoulders in “The Warrior’s Husband.”
Hepburn’s long affair with actor Spencer Tracy falls into the second half. Davidson dips into the subject tenderly, caressing a red sweater thrown over her shoulders (it was Tracy’s) and sharing memories of their time together. Other moments look back at Hepburn’s long career, including musical “Coco.”
Davidson plays Hepburn’s medical problems with sensitivity and grace. The actress had developed a tremor by the early 1980s and suffered a broken leg in a car crash. A breakdown scene drives home the impotence the lively actress must have felt at being so constricted. Pill bottles dot the pastel 1983 set, complete with slim mint green telephone.
The show’s one truly serious theme, the death of Hepburn’s brother, is explored deftly. Davidson slows her speech, makes the audience feel as if she’s talking directly to them, recounts the story and how her family reacted. Unfortunately, Sunday’s scene was ruined by a ringing cell phone during a key moment.
“Tea at Five” offers a singularly fascinating peek through the blinds of a screen legend. Even if many details of Hepburn’s life and career were well-chronicled by an actress that loved the press, Davidson brings them to life in stirring, thrilling fashion. Her brilliant storyteller’s skill lifts the play’s modest ambitions to entertaining delight.