“The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest,” says Katharine Hepburn as performed by Janis Stevens near the end of a new play about the great American actress. Hepburn is quoting William Shakespeare, of course, but more specifically she’s remembering her mother quoting Shakespeare to her when she was a child.
At this point in the production blessings abound in the world premiere of “Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn” at Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage. Shakespeare and Stevens are a wonderful match. It is not always the case in the lumpy bio-drama that places a 92-year-old Hepburn in her family home on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Though Stevens is older than Shakespeare’s Portia, who delivers the mercy speech in “The Merchant of Venice,” she’s also significantly younger than Hepburn was at the time of the play. It doesn’t matter, though, as Stevens is the production’s greatest resource. There’s no disappointment in her performance, which channels so much of Hepburn’s later years: her tremor, the reedy voice, the signature defiant glare, the glowing triumphant smile. Stevens registers it all as the resourceful actor she is – not as a mimic or celebrity impersonator.
Hearing some of Shakespeare’s most transcendent poetry in “Kate” reminds us how uneven the greatest artists sometimes can be. “Merchant,” for example, contorts itself in making certain points and never works itself free. Playwright Rick Foster, who wrote “Kate,” has conundrums aplenty himself in creating the show. A life as eventful as that of Hepburn, whose personality was as complex and celebrated as the woman herself (she often reminds us), requires careful distillation and consideration. Foster also places the show as a performance Hepburn knows she’s giving, as she often addresses the audience that has come to see her.
The play has Hepburn near the end of her life “looking forward, always looking forward,” which she says is the Hepburn way. What’s most interesting, though, and what the play-makers understand, is most people have come to see Kate telling stories about Kate. This is, after all, the “unexamined life,” and despite the slight false advertising of the title (there is no part of Katharine Hepburn’s life left unexamined, although ironically the play consciously tiptoes around some elements), Hepburn does indulge in the occasional deep-reaching revelation.
The production begins with an early invocation of Hepburn’s longtime companion, actor Spencer Tracy, who was the central figure of her adult life, besides herself. We don’t hear much of his legendary belligerent alcoholism, their mutual unfaithfulness or the rumors she often laughed off that she may have had same-sex partners.
Foster uses the major markers of family deaths as the linchpins of the story. The suicide of Hepburn’s beloved brother, Tom, is told in detail. She discovered his body hanging from a bed sheet in a Greenwich Village apartment. The memory will always haunt her. Of the deaths of her mother, father and Tracy, Hepburn eventually says she’s been left alone to go off into the “undiscovered country” of old age.
We are often reminded of Hepburn’s individuality, she calls it creating her own “creature,” something particularly necessary when one is considered a public commodity. As much as Hepburn wanted to be successful, she wanted it on her own terms and was smart enough to make it happen.
After the typical Hollywood roller-coaster ride from bright young star to “box office poison,” Hepburn starts initiating her own projects. With the help of then-boyfriend Howard Hughes she secures the rights to “The Philadelphia Story” and elbows her way right back to the top.
Foster and director Peter Sander must have thought a little levity was necessary outside of Hepburn’s own liberal sense of humor. So we have Mr. Rotterdam, who seems to be half stage manager/half assisted living nurse. Rotterdam is actually actor Marty Parker, whose task as comic relief becomes more thankless with each appearance, the last of which is an embarrassment.
The play-makers also include unnecessary background music meant to signify “important” moments in the production, an intrusion that undermines those moments more than underscoring them.
There’s no doubt Hepburn becomes a lively, engaging figure through the strong performance by Stevens, yet the story being told here isn’t fully formed and doesn’t trust what it has so far.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
KATE: THE UNEXAMINED LIFE OF KATHARINE HEPBURN
What: Janis Stevens stars as Katharine Hepburn, in a play by Rick Foster, directed by Peter Sander. Appropriate for high school age and older
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 14.
Where: Pollock Stage, Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St., Sacramento
Time: 88 minutes with no intermission
Information: (916) 443-6722; www.sactheatre.org