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Theater review: 'Tea at Five' at Alhecama Theatre

December 10, 2009 |  4:00 pm

400.Tea-at-Five_ETC-19 "If I could have an alternate reel, want to know what I’d change about my life?" warbles actress Stephanie Zimbalist, channeling Katharine Hepburn in pitch-perfect setup for a classic Kate retort: "Not a ... thing."

Feisty, aristocratic and unrepentant, Hepburn's star has been sincerely flattered by countless imitators, but playwright Matthew Lombardo attempted to dig a bit deeper into the biography behind the icon with "Tea at Five," his 2002 full-length monologue.

 Of course, the acid test of any solo celebrity portrait is whether we feel we've spent time in the presence of its subject. In director Jenny Sullivan's impeccably staged revival for Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theatre Company, Zimbalist is at the top of her game, spanning 45 years to convincingly depict Hepburn engaging us over afternoon tea at two turning points in her life.

The first act,  set in 1938, finds the 31-year-old Hepburn in full retreat at her family's beach estate in Connecticut (rendered with tasteful opulence by scenic designer Neil Prince). Branded "box office poison" after a string of movie flops, she's come home to nurse her psychic wounds and await the decision on whether she's been cast as Scarlett O'Hara. By turns vibrant, petulant and disarmingly frank, Zimbalist's performance could be seamlessly spliced into "The Philadelphia Story" (the hit that would soon revive Hepburn's career) as she reflects on her failed marriage, tabloid rumors and the vagaries of the Hollywood star system.

When we rejoin her in 1983 at age 76, physical vitality has given way to the faltering gait and quavering voice from the onset of Parkinson's disease, but in her unvanquished imperial hauteur Zimbalist provides captivating continuity of character throughout.

Lombardo's script is ripe with anecdotal celebrity name-dropping and historical detail -- particularly with respect to family traumas -- but often flits across the surface of events disclosed in Hepburn's interviews and autobiography without risking much speculation or unique insight (the buildup to the relationship with Spencer Tracy is a total cheat). Zimbalist and director Jenny Sullivan recognize and incorporate this limitation -- in the midst of these faux-confessionals, Hepburn seems to acknowledge the part she's playing even here and pokes fun at her own myth. But even if we're only allowed so far behind the persona, the compelling illusion should satisfy fans hungering for a Hepburn encore performance.

--Phillip Brandes

"Tea at Five," Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 27. $29-48. (805) 965-5400. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photo: Stephanie Zimbalist. Photo credit: David Bazemore.