Peggy Trecker White has played a variety of characters on stage, but one of her most captivating was that of Katharine Hepburn. This month White reprises her role in Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of Matthew Lombardo’s “Tea at Five.”
The play focuses on two periods of the Academy Award winner’s life: in 1938 when she’s at a professional low point and in 1983 when she casts a philosophical look back on her star-studded career.
Trecker White’s affectionate portrayal promises an evening chock full of wit, charm, and insider Hollywood and Broadway stories. Here she gives us her thoughts on playing Kate.
What drew you to portray Katharine Hepburn?
She’s one of the great actors and one of the greatest role models for women. If you do a search of her quotes, you’ll find that they’re all about strength and owning your own decisions. The other beautiful thing about her is that she isn’t afraid of talking about her vulnerabilities and her insecurities. And her movies are stunning. She doesn’t follow the mold of other Hollywood actresses in that era and that makes her stand out.
Why “Tea at Five?”
I’ve had people liken me to Katharine Hepburn in movies like “The Philadelphia Story.” So I listened to the Kate Mulgrew production of “Tea at Five” and thought I’d like to do that someday. The play is an amazing opportunity for an actor to not only embody a life like she had, but also to play two opposite ends of her career — to go from age 31 to age 76. Everything in this script are things she said or wrote. The stories — about her affair with Spencer Tracy, her brother’s suicide and her finding him, her living next door to Stephen Sondheim — are all true.
How did you prepare for the role?
I’ve read her autobiographies and watched her movies. The first time I did this show I would have “The Philadelphia Story” playing on my computer in the background as I did my hair and makeup. That was my ritual.
Even now I want to have her voice in my head all the time. I cull pictures of her to remind me of her physicality. I also listen to her voice and watch her on camera to capture her gestures.
You’re both redheads, and there’s a physical resemblance. Any connection there? Or is it something more?
I am slightly like her in that I have high cheekbones but our mouths, eyes, and noses are different. As for the something more, when I was a little kid, my favorite phrases were: “I can do it my way.” And “You have your way and I have mine.” Sometimes I attribute my determination to being a Sagittarius. I’m pretty blunt. I don’t like small talk. I’m loyal. I like close relationships.
In her early Broadway years, Hepburn had problems projecting her voice and when she stepped in for an ailing Hope Williams, the star of Holiday, she tried imitating Williams and got panned. Her mentor, Frances Duff, cured her of that and helped her develop that iconic voice by learning to blow out a candle.
She didn’t have a lot of power to project for the theater, and the candle training helped with that. Duff asked her, “Do you want to be an actress or a star?” and Katharine replied, “a star.” “Then,” said Duff, “you need the voice of a star so that even if people close their eyes, they’d still know it was you.” In other words, we’re not going to change your voice. We’re going to strengthen who you are and take that out into the world.
So how do you make yourself sound like her?
I try to adjust my mouth and facial placement for how she speaks as a younger woman and of course, for how she speaks when she is older. And I don’t overthink the tremor. As she speaks, her lips are up and jaw out. Her chin drops off a little. And she’s very erect.
And at the end of each performance does your throat hurt?
My jaw gets sore because of all the stretching.
Leading up to the show and during its run, do you think in her voice?
I become absolutely immersed. I talk to myself in my car a lot. Once we start rehearsal that will be terrifying because I’m sure my voice won’t be where I want it to be and I’ll be doing it in front of other people who never saw the show. But you have to start somewhere.
How do you transform yourself into the older Kate? Is there some magic routine you go through between Act I and Act II?
Between acts I have no time. The intermission is me changing clothes — into a turtle neck, oversized man’s shirt with red cardigan around my neck, baggy pants. Putting my hair into that iconic top knot. Putting on the leg brace. (Kate has been in a car accident.) And then there’s that tremor. It’s really just a few moments of physically channeling her as a 76-year-old. I don’t take a rest. It’s really important to me to not let go of that focus.
The play is full of brilliant zingers and great Hollywood and Broadway tales — Lionel Barrymore’s attempted seduction, verbal jabs at Louella Parsons — interspersed with quirky family stories. Yet there’s a sense of loss. In Act I, it’s the suicide of her brother and her career taking a hit after a string of flops.
What I find interesting is that she make a lot of jokes about her career and being termed “box-office poison” and puts everything in this zingy pithy light. But I recently saw an interview where she admitted she’d never attended a single Academy Award show. “It must say something about myself since I didn’t go,” she’d said. “I was too afraid I’d lose.”
In that first act, she admits her weaknesses. Her desire to be Scarlett O’Hara is a desperation you don’t often get to see in her but even more so the pressure from her father, whom she admired, has a lot to do with it.
As for Scarlett O’Hara, it seems so funny to imagine her in the part. She’s so wrong for the role. But if you look at the part on paper, Scarlett is an incredibly strong character so that independence and fierceness to survive are similarities between her and Katharine. But it’s hard to picture Katharine playing a southern belle. She is an new Englander through-and-through. But “Gone With the Wind” was a huge film and she also wanted to revive her career and I think she related to the strength of that character.
And Act II when she’s dealing with aging and Spencer Tracy’s death?
The second act is set in 1983 right after Spencer Tracy’s wife has died. She didn’t publicly speak of any relationship with him until after Louise’s death. And out of respect, she didn’t attend his funeral. She was with him for 27 years but in an incredibly private way. Here she gets the chance to open up about him and how much she loved him. And then there’s the issue of being an older actor. “Older women — no one wants to watch and we are left out of Hollywood scene …” she says. But she also declares, “If I could have an alternative reel, what would I change about my life. Not a goddamn thing.”
Her 27-year relationship with the married Spencer Tracy always seemed at odds with her strong woman persona.
What’s fascinating is that power structure. They met on a studio lot. Spencer was nonplussed and Katharine, looking him over, said to the movie’s producer, “He’s a little short.” The producer replied, “Don’t worry he’ll cut you down to size.” My guess is that his appeal was that he didn’t kowtow or worship her. So that proved a challenge for her. And he really made her laugh — a huge thing.
What happens after the curtain rings down the last night of the run?
I cry. I have such an amazing time doing this show. It’s one of the highlights of my career. I could tour this show for a year and be perfectly happy. It’s an honor to get to do the show and play her because I think she’s much stronger lady than I am. She’s something to aspire too. And, like her I’ve learned, that a lot of times strength is simply doing.
If you go
- What: Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Tea at Five”
- When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14-16, 2 p.m. Dec. 17
- Where: Hilton Head Preparatory School Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head Island
- Also: Talkbacks following each performance
- Tickets: $40 evening performances; $35 matinees; $15 students/active military. Group and discount rates available
- Details: www.leanensemble.org, 843-715-6676