Mulgrew shows it's not easy becoming Kate Hepburn

Chris Curcio

Special for The Republic

Oct. 7, 2004 

Without impersonating stage and screen legend Katharine Hepburn, Kate Mulgrew becomes her in Tea at Five.

Mulgrew, of Star Trek: Voyager fame, knows she can't duplicate the star, so she creates the illusion of Hepburn. But unlike those awful caricature impersonators, she is never disrespectful. You'll never laugh at Mulgrew's vision. You'll cry and be moved, but when Hepburn amuses in Matthew Lombardo's clever, insightful and reverent script, you'll laugh with Mulgrew at Hepburn's wicked sense of fun.

But Mulgrew's performance has a near-fatal flaw: She overplays Hepburn's New England accent so broadly that only a portion of her dialogue could be understood opening night. The problem is partially attributable to the Orpheum's quirky acoustics and a dreadful sound system.

It's a shame this problem overwhelmed a performance that is a haunting snapshot of Hepburn's complex life. She's 31 in Act 1 with a sagging film career. She's waiting, without hope, it turns out, to be cast as Gone With the Wind's Scarlett. She chats candidly about her career, but most of her discussion focuses on those people closest to her and how they affected her. For a woman so confident, she's riddled with doubt and fear. The act ends with the arrival of The Philadelphia Story, a play and later film that restarted her career.

Act 2 picks up in Hepburn's 70s when she has taken a self-imposed retirement. Here, Mulgrew captures Hepburn's fragile health, her quavering voice, her trembling hands, but it is here that Hepburn talks of her only true love, Spencer Tracy.

All the rich details of Hepburn's life are to treasure in Mulgrew's stunning portrait, if you could only understand the dialogue.