“Never complain, never explain.” Katharine Hepburn said that once, a succinct encapsulation of her tough Yankee worldview. Yet the version of Hepburn on stage in Kate: The Unexamined Life, now playing at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, does little but complain and explain for 90 minutes.
Rick Foster’s paint-by-numbers bio-play leaves little unexamined, flitting from one major milestone in the venerated actor’s life to another. Her iconoclastic youth, early Hollywood success, career troubles, decades-long romance with Spencer Tracy, and flinty dotage all get a proper airing. Some memories even warrant a dash of introspection, as when Kate considers how her family’s New England stoicism influenced her hardnosed outlook on life, love, and personal relationships.
The complaining comes in a familiar form. Set on the eve of the year 2000—the last night of her century, she informs the audience—the 92-year-old Kate (Janis Stevens) works herself into high dudgeon about the cruelty of living so long, and the resentment she feels at being denied one last great acting role to cap her seven-decade career. She envies her beloved Spence, who died at 67, riding high from the completion of their final film together, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
The vagaries of aging can certainly make for thought-provoking theater, as works as diverse as Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing and David Mamet’s The Duck Variations recently reminded me, and it’s somewhat refreshing to find Hepburn wrested free from her sanctified public image. Yet for all the potentially interesting avenues available in this angle, the drama too often wades into the turgid waters of maudlin sentimentality, leaving Kate up to her neck in a sea of regret. “Why the hell couldn’t I get out when the getting was good?” she asks the audience—or maybe God—but Foster doesn’t offer much insight into Hepburn’s longevity. (The real Katharine Hepburn died in 2003, six weeks after her 96th birthday).
Instead, he lingers on stories that can be found in any of the numerous authorized and unauthorized biographies available. A stronger playwright could probably make something of older brother Tom’s suicide—14-year-old Kate found his body—but in Foster’s hands, it becomes another opportunity for lachrymose sympathy-mongering. Similarly, Kate’s self-awareness in constructing a public persona, which she calls “The Creature,” doesn’t quite connect to our ongoing fascination with celebrity culture in the way it’s clearly meant to. Foster initially seems intent on using this as a dramatic throughline, but drops it often in favor of pithy anecdotes.
To her credit, Stevens offers a refreshingly unmannered performance, capturing Kate’s essence without descending into caricature. It helps that she bears a striking resemblance to the screen legend, and she manages to replicate the actor’s unique vocal cadence in a way that doesn’t turn cloying. She holds the audience’s attention even when the play is at its most predictable, nimbly whirling herself around Laura Revelt’s packrat set in a wheelchair with enough elegance to suggest ballet.
The wood-planked set has real and imagined significance, serving as both the attic of her Old Saybrook, Connecticut home and the recesses of her brilliant, soon-to-fade mind. Revelt stuffs it with the detritus of her long life—a dress-body bearing a “Votes for Women” sash, a stack of old programs from her theatrical excursions, and rows upon rows of steamer trunks—and Shon Causer’s lighting alternates between blazing clarity and dusky decline.
There’s a poignant significance to this, but like the play itself, it’s too obvious and overstuffed a metaphor to be truly moving. The entire endeavor could benefit from Ms. Hepburn’s advice: Never explain.
What, When, Where
Kate: The Unexamined Life. By Rick Foster, Peter Sander directed. Through April 7, 2019, at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
The Walnut is an ADA-compliant venue. If you need wheelchair seating, call (215) 574-3550 ext. 6, rather than ordering online, and staffers will assist you.