Kate Mulgrew will portray a more vulnerable Hepburn
"Tea at Five" has evolved since its premiere here three years ago

Connecticut Life 

By Nancy Thompson

November  2004

Kate Mulgrew never met Katharine Hepburn but she didn't really like what she knew of the legendary Harford-born actess. That's changed in the past three years. 

"I could have auditioned for her a couple of times, but I didn't," Ms. Mulgrew said recently in a phone interview from her New York home. "I found her strident and difficult. I had a natural antipathy toward her."

Then she was contacted, through a mutual friend, by Matthew Lombardo, a Wethersfield native who wanted to write "Tea at Five", a one-woman play for her in which she would portray Ms. Hepburn. 

"I said to myself, 'You're never going to have a chance like this again,'" Ms. Mulgrew recalled. "She was a silver arrow who shot herself into Hollywood."

To prepare for the role, in which she plays Ms. Hepburn in 1938 as a young actress and in 1983 when she was recovering from a broken ankle, Ms. Mulgrew said she read everything she could find about her and "watched every one of her movies at least five times."

In the process her opinion of the four-time Oscare winner changed.

"I had the incomparable experience of falling in love with the character," she said. "I discovered her vulnerablity. It's something you can really work with. It shaped her."

Ms. Mulgrew believes that quality, which has become more apparent as "Tea at Five" has been rewritten time and time again since its debut, is one of the reasons for the play's success. 

"That's why, I think, it's endured," she said. "The audience comes along for the ride. I'm following her lead. I take it to its furthermost experience."

It's a difficult role. Not only is Ms. Mulgrew on stage, alone, for the entire production, but she needs to portray a well-known personality at two very different points in her life. 

"It's incredibly rigorous and very demanding, vocally," she said. "I'm tricking my voice. I've accepted the damage of her vocal chords."

While some people believe the second act would be more difficult, with the aging actress's trembling and voice tremors, Ms. Mulgrew said the physical demands of Act One are harder. "I'm not 30 any more," she said. "It's demanding, but it should be."

Janeway to Hepburn

It was Ms. Mulgrew's best-known role, as Captain Kathryn Janeway in television's "Star Trek Voyager," that brought her to Mr. Lombardo's attention.

"I knew nothing about Katharine Hepburn," Mr. Lombardo said. "I was watching "Star Trek" several years ago with Nancy Addison, a friend who played Jillian on "Ryan's Hope", when there was a close-up shot of Captain Janeway. 

"My God," he recalled saying, "she looks like Katharine Hepburn. Someone should write a play for her."

At that point, he said, Ms. Addison, also a close friend of Ms. Mulgrew, told him, "Well, you're a playwright, you idiot. Write one."

"I started learning about Katharine Hepburn," he said. "Not just her actual life, but her emotional life as well. Then four years ago, Nancy called to say Kate was almost done with Star Trek. I sent copies of the play to Kate Mulgrew, saying that Harford Stage was interested, and to Hartford Stage, saying that Kate Mulgrew was interested, and neither one knew about the other letter."

Ironically, Ms. Addisoon, who in many ways was responsible for "Tea at Five" and Ms. Mulgrew's involvement in it, died two years ago and never had a chance to see the play. "It was a difficult time," Mr. Lombardo said. "Nancy was fading out of my life, and Katie (as he refers to Ms. Mulgrew) was fading in. Now she's one of my closest friends. It's funny how life comes full circle."

He said the play has "changed immensely" since it was produced at Hartford Stage three years ago, adding that "Katie has 137 rewrites in her closet."

"I never think of the play as being done. I'm still looking to change it," he said. "It's always a work in progress. If I thought it was finished, it would be such a hard thing for me."

He praised Ms. Mulgrew, saying the production has "the right actress playing the right character. She leaves blood on that stage every night. That's how damned good she is. She has 15 minutes to age 50 years. She's truly a remarkable actress."

Talking about the changes in the way Ms. Hepburn is portrayed, Mr. Lombardo said, "In Hartford, Katharine Hepburn was a very polarizing character. She was arrogant, especially in her 30s, and had just been termed "box office poison." The character was irritating in the first act at first, but we've written in more vulnerablity and audiences now see her as a friend."

When asked about any similarties in her portrayals of Kathryn Janeway and Katharine Hepburn, Ms. Mulgrew chuckled. "They're not comparable," she said. "One's real, one was fiction, and never the twain shall meet. When you're portraying a real personality you must be decent and honor that life."

Back to Harford

Both playwright and actress said they're happy to be returning to Harford. "I grew up at the Bushnell," Mr. Lombardo said. "I went with my parents and my aunts as a child. To play the Bushnell, for me as a Hartford boy, is more important than playing in New York City. So many people have supported my career in Hartford."

Ms. Mulgrew said she appreciates the Harford audience. "I'm particularly happy to be coming back to Hartford," she said. "People are so familiar with her, and so discerning and incredibly generous. I'm really looking forward to this and to this beautiful theater."