REVIEW: Walnut Street’s Kate: The Unexamined Life Gives Us Hepburn With Tears

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Janis Stevens in Kate: The Unexamined Life at Walnut Street Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

The great film critic Pauline Kael—herself an iconoclast of Katharine Hepburn-like proportions—was often dismissive of Kate and her reputation as our finest actress. Kael seemed to favor Hepburn’s contemporary (both born in 1907) and perhaps closest rival, Rosalind Russell.

Nonetheless, Kael could be critical of Russell, too. I wish I could find the exact quote, but here’s the gist: she wrote of a later-career Russell performance (perhaps as Auntie Mame, one of her signatures) that she liked Roz better as an actress than as a national monument

I’d say something similar about Hepburn. Her 1930s films (especially Alice Adams and Holiday) showcase a sparkling comic talent and truly distinctive style. But from the ‘40s onward, Kate calcified into something far less appealing. By then, her mannered persona—patrician and stoic (it’s hard to find any description of Hepburn that doesn’t include the word “Yankee”)—was virtually a brand, and seemed scientifically engineered for Mt. Rushmore.

Indeed, America practically canonized the older, bolder Kate. Even I enjoy some of her later, more dramatic work, including The African Queen, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Delicate Balance.

More often, though, I found it difficult to reconcile Hepburn’s trademark toughness with her increasingly mawkish, self-referential acting. The oft-quoted “You’re my knight in shining armor!” line from On Golden Pond makes me cringe; so does the entirety of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. To me, there’s something paradoxical about the actress and the image—we’re supposed to find her a model of unsentimental pragmatism, but the actual performances are awash in bathos.

So I was fascinated to discover, as I sat in the Walnut Street Studio, watching Rick Foster’s hagiographic one-hander, Kate: The Unexamined Life, that the play—ironically and likely unintentionally—captures exactly what I dislike about America’s most beloved actress.

I should also say that the show will likely be catnip for many audiences—there were audible sighs of delight on opening night. Janis Stevens gives an extraordinary performance—she uncannily summons Hepburn’s unique persona, but this is real acting and never simply mimicry. Foster’s script is essentially a litany of Kate’s joys (notably her long relationship with Spencer Tracy) and sorrows, and the seams certainly show in the exposition, but it’s no worse in that sense than most plays of this genre.

What grabbed me from the start, though, was how much of Kate’s story is presented, as Chekhov might have described it, through tears. Gritty determination always threatens to float away in self-pity—it never quite does, but the overwhelming mood is lachrymose.

To me, that’s the essential and irreconcilable Katharine Hepburn. I can’t say that Kate: The Unexamined Life struck me as a great evening of theater—but it comes closer to revealing The Hepburn Problem than anything I’ve ever seen… and probably more than Foster and company meant to.

Kate: The Unexamined Life plays through April 7. For more information, visit the Walnut Street Theatre website.


2 replies »

  1. Kael’s statement about Rosalind Russell appears in her capsule write-up of HIS GIRL FRIDAY, in KISS KISS BANG BANG. (For whatever reason, the deletion of this parenthetical remark was among the changes when this mini-review was reused in 5001 NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES.) “The difference between Miss Russell here and in a later vehicle like AUNTIE MAME is the difference between a comedienne and an institution.”

    I never detected any overall preference by Kael for Russell over Hepburn, though maybe the thread is there to be teased out. I recall lots of praise for Hepburn’s classic performances in one movie after another, in fact. Also in K.K.B.B., she writes, “Aside from her comedies,” [of which there are many, of course] “Katharine Hepburn has been best in LITTLE WOMEN, in ALICE ADAMS, and, later in her career, in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.” [She praises her work in THE AFRICAN QUEEN elsewhere in the book — maybe that counts among the comedies.] And she says of the same movie, “Hepburn’s pantomiming in some of the scenes is as fine as the best American acting I’ve ever seen — she makes Alice one of the few authentic American movie heroines.”

    And she really goes all out with LONG DAY’S JOURNEY: “Katharine Hepburn has surpassed herself — the most beautiful comedienne of the thirties and forties has become our greatest tragedienne; seeing her transitions in JOURNEY, the way she can look eighteen or eighty at will, experiencing the magic in the art of acting, one can understand why the appellation ‘the divine’ has sometimes been awarded to certain actresses.”

    • Thanks, Jon — I should have thought to ask you about the Kael quote! In fact, it was PK’s praise for ALICE ADAMS that brought me to the movie, a much later discovery for me than HOLIDAY, PHILADELPHIA STORY, or BRINGING UP BABY, all of which I’d seen when still pretty young. And I’d rank ALICE ADAMS as my favorite of all KH performances, and possibly my favorite of her films, too.

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