Since the pandemic forced theaters to close in March, local performing arts centers have tried various ways to bring back live productions. Luckily, we live in the digital age, which makes it easy to bring live theater into people’s living rooms.
That’s what St. Petersburg theater company American Stage is doing with its season, aptly titled Reimagine. The first half of the season is on the “virtual stage,” meaning live productions happen in the theater but with no audience. Viewers tune in through their computers or televisions from the safety of their homes.
With Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn, running now through Nov. 29, comes American Stage’s first physical set since March. And it’s a one-woman show, which adds another layer of safety, starring Janis Stevens.
I tuned in this past weekend. It was easy to get to the program from American Stage’s website. Viewers who have smart TVs can stream it and settle onto their couches and enjoy. No temperature checks, health screenings or masks necessary.
Under the direction of Benjamin T. Ismail, the production retains the feeling of watching a play, even through a screen. But the filmed aspect makes for artful camera angles not possible in a theater setting.
The play takes place on New Year’s Eve in 1999, in “the last hour of her century.” At age 92, a wheelchair-bound Hepburn sits in an attic cluttered with photographs, an antique radio and record player, and a dress. The program notes tell you that it’s the “attic of her mind.” Perhaps a lamp with a cockeyed shade refers to her descent into dementia. It’s nice to see the work of set designer Jerid Fox again, particularly the clever way video is incorporated to create different skies outside the attic window.
As Hepburn, Stevens is spot on. She adopts Hepburn’s shaky voice and fiery demeanor. In her pants and crisp collared shirt — kudos to costume designer Gail Russell for nailing the wardrobe — she embodies Hepburn.
Playwright Rick Foster wrote Kate specifically for Stevens, with whom he has collaborated for 25 years. It’s an understandable choice. Both Hepburn and Stevens gave memorable performances in the meaty role of morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone; Stevens in American Stage’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Hepburn in the 1962 film.
As the title hints at, Kate reveals lesser-known details about Hepburn’s life. In the early part of her career, Hepburn never gave interviews. Her first major interview came in the 1970s on The Dick Cavett Show.
The audience is treated like a character who has been invited to her attic because she wants to ask us something, but she can’t remember what. Nonetheless, we’re there for a conversation.
Stevens embarks on Hepburn’s life story, illuminating aspects of her family, including that her mother, an activist in the suffrage movement, was a co-founder of Planned Parenthood.
During her performance, Stevens plays Hepburn with dry wit and the tough demeanor instilled by her parents, particularly her father, who dealt with strife by not dwelling in the past, saying that Hepburns “look forward, always forward.”
But as the play progresses, emotional vulnerability and fragility emerge.
She recounts her relationship with her oldest brother, Tom, the “knight in shining armor” she fashioned herself after, even wearing his hand-me-downs. Hepburn pioneered women wearing pants, and trousers became a signature look.
Her Hollywood years are discussed, with insights from her early success to years of being deemed “box office poison” after a string of duds, then taking control of her career thanks to the help of what she calls her “creature,” her bossy, self-centered persona that was often mirrored in the roles she played.
Of course, she talks at length about her relationship with Spencer Tracy, with whom she lived unmarried until his death. She found him in their kitchen after a heart attack.
Hepburn’s life was marred by the deaths of those closest to her, and the play reveals the emotional turmoil in her family. She finds old age “uncharted territory” and asks, “Who in this world is left to help me?”
Those and other kinds of existential matters pervade Kate. But that’s to be expected, considering Hepburn’s long and fascinating life.
American Stage’s Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn is streaming now through Nov. 29. $15. americanstage.org.