While the women had little power over their careers, their box-office appeal gave them a different kind of clout but competition for roles was fierce. Ambition, business savvy and assertiveness were qualities required to become successful but they earned many actresses less than flattering labels. Hard, ruthless, eccentric and temperamental were some of those labels.
Playwright Matthew Lombardo has created a one-woman show about one of those successfully iconic ladies: Katharine Hepburn. Tea at Five is playing a one-week engagement at the Hippodrome Theatre starring Kate Mulgrew.
“The play was written for me by Matthew Lombardo,” says Mulgrew, speaking by phone from her home in Ohio. “He was watching an episode of Star Trek with my best friend Nancy Addison and he said ‘Boy that woman should play Katharine Hepburn.’ Nancy told him she happened to be my best friend, you write it and I’ll get it to her, and she did. We had about ten theaters we thought we could shop it to and Hartford (Stage) was most appropriate because that is where (Hepburn) was born and raised.”
The playwright had brought out in this work about Hepburn’s life new details about her life.
“What he did that was so clever: to draw this polarity between the young Kate and the old Kate,” says Mulgrew. “In act one she is 31 and you see that she is in a state of quiet desperation, she’d been labeled box office poison. Is she ever going to work again? (She) was desperate for Scarlet O’Hara and we all know that never happened. She is sort of bounding around the stage alternately showing off and revealing herself. In act two you see the 76 year old, far more self-deprecating and far more reflective.”
Mulgrew says it’s fair to say Hepburn was a very private person who lived her life through her work.
“More than fair, underscore,” she says. “Through her work, for her work and because of her work. It is the ultimate sacrifice that the woman made.”
“Her grief,” says Mulgrew, is what made Hepburn a survivor.
Mulgrew pauses when she’s asked what makes her a survivor.
“I would say…the love I have had in my life. I chose to have children and to get married and all that. Which helps me survive. That’s the great difference between us. My career has been good.”
Given the chance to see the play, Mulgrew thinks Hepburn would approve.
“I think she would very much like it. I think she would say ‘Oh I wish you wouldn’t say that out loud.’ She was seriously private but she is also public domain, right? It’s the old bit of her coming out of the stage door and everybody crowding about for autographs. She said, ‘I gave you what I gave you, that’s it.’ I don’t believe in that, that’s where I part ways with her. If you’re going to become a public figure you have to know that’s part of the deal. You belong then, in part, to the public. (This attitude) cost her so much. I think that her life was really a terrible discipline but I don’t have to practice that on my own.”
During intermission, Mulgrew changes from the 31-year-old to the 76-year-old Hepburn.
“It’s less frantic than it was in the beginning, I thought I was going to die. Now there’s a real fluidity to it. It comes quite natural and I so look forward to act two. It’s kind of the payoff and it’s a payoff for me too creatively. The audiences are enthralled; they so much want to know about her on that level. She actually accomplished everything she wanted to accomplish.”
The role that Mulgrew is most famous for is Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. A character that Mulgrew says was far more practical than she was.
“She was a complete leader.”
The audiences at Tea for Five include many of her Star Trek fans.
“Their allegiance is just astounding. I do very few cons (Star Trek conventions), they’re hard. It’s a weird dynamic I don’t quite understand it, but I certainly understand it when I am on the stage. It’s a big fan base and they warned me about this and I don’t think I fully understood it when I went in, now I do. I am grateful to them.”
The audiences she’s been playing to around the country has included more than Trekkies.
“The target audience I would say would be older women who remember her very well. They often come in groups, they come with their children and some of them even manage to drag their husbands. Those women and (many) woman seem to have a great response; and gay men who have always admired her and seem to admire me.”
Every night Mulgrew leaves her audience with a wonderful performance and story.
“I’ve had a lot of tears. Many women say ‘I’ve spent an evening with Katharine Hepburn.’”