Make it a date, "Tea at Five" with Katharine Hepburn at the Cape Playhouse

Stephanie Zimbalist is engaging as film and stage legend Katharine Hepburn

By Maggie Kulbokas

The legendary Cape Playhouse in Dennis opened its 84th season with a sure success, “Tea at Five”, by Matthew Lombardo.  The two-act, one-woman show based on the film and stage legend’s own “Me: Stories of My Life”, offers direct access to the personal thoughts and life of the one and only Katharine Hepburn, adeptly portrayed by Stephanie Zimbalist.

Last night, the curtain rose revealing the sitting room of the Hepburn family home in Fenwick, Connecticut.  The year was 1938 and Katharine Hepburn had fled the poisonous glares and barbs of Hollywood to the East Coast home of her beloved family.

Stephanie Zimbalist as Katharine Hepburn, now at the Cape Playhouse through June 19th. Photo by David Bazemore.

Hepburn, a Yankee, through and through, found herself drawn back to Fenwick—a safe haven for the accomplished actress of stage and screen.  The Bryn Mawr educated daughter of a urologist and a suffragette, Hepburn was beyond her time.

In her trademark comfortable trousers, her vibrant red locks cascaded across her shoulders as she paced the floor of the parlor.  It was 1938 and a “tropical storm”, later to be known as the New England Hurricane of 1938, brewed outside as Hepburn’s inner turmoil brewed inside.  Up for the role of Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind”, Hepburn eagerly awaited the news, praying she would get the part while reminiscing about the days that brought her to this point.

Regardless of the anxiety created by waiting for the call from her former lover now manager, Leland Hayward, Hepburn sits down to enjoy her afternoon tea, for as she explains, Hepburns were creatures of habit and her mother insisted upon tea at five each afternoon. 

As she spoke of roles and leading men, directors and producers, one thing rang clear, she was one of the few who embodied the true craft and artistry of acting. Katharine Hepburn was talented, wise and intelligent.  She could be wicked and catty, bossy and tough.  Most important, she was grateful to all who touched her world, for whatever way they touched it, from the stage producer who robbed her of her confidence (temporarily) to the voice teacher who helped her find her own voice-the voice we will forever know as Katharine Hepburn.

As everyone knows, Hepburn did not win the role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”.  But as the old saying goes, as one door closes, another opens and she landed the role of Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story” shortly thereafter.

After a brief intermission, the second curtain opened on Katharine in 1983.  It is tea time again and we find her still in the sitting room of Fenwick, but it is not the original Fenwick—that was lost in the storm. Hepburn, many years older, in a foot cast (the result of a car accident) is fighting the crushing effects of Parkinson’s.

This leap into the future, 45 years, permits a behind scenes peek into Hepburn’s remarkable career, peppered with extreme ups and downs.  The achievements (four Oscars, an Emmy and myriad nominations in several categories), the devastations (shaking the label “box office poison”), her love affairs including her 27-year relationship with the married Spencer Tracy and the death of her beloved older brother Tom.

Stephanie Zimbalist, an accomplished television and stage star in her own right, was astounding. She truly embodied what Hepburn called the “young girl still inside the old broad”.  Lombardo’s lines and Hepburn’s clever wit and persona fit Ms. Zimbalist like a worn, comfortable tracksuit—an homage to be appreciated by any Hepburn fan.

The comfortable Conneticut parlor was created by Neil Price. Lighting by Christopher S. Chambers and sound by James McCarthy provided a stage in a real stage for the actress.  Because after all, an actress doesn’t need a stage—even a country sitting room will do.

There were two treats for opening night--the playwright Matthew Lombardo was in the house and two of the original costumes worn by Hepburn on the silver screen were on display. One of the costumes was even created by Walter Plunkett, the man behind such memorable designs as Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain dress.

The rest of the Cape Playhouse season is sure to be a delight. Upcoming productions include Hitchcock’s “39 Steps”, the captivating “Grey Gardens” and the rollicking stage smash “Hairspray”, which for the first time in Playhouse history, will run for three weeks this summer.

“Tea at Five” runs June 7 through June 19, Monday through Saturday at 8pm. Matinees on Wednesdays and the second Thursday at 2 p.m. and the first Saturday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $69.25-$29.25.  The Cape Playhouse is on Route 6A in Dennis Village. Visit the website here, or call the box office at 877-385-3911 for tickets to “Tea at Five” or any of the other shows coming up this season.  

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