February 6, 2002
This Kate Born To Play THE Kate
By Pat Seremet
Courant Staff Writer
Kate Mulgrew is in Hepburn territory. She knew that coming in. But now that she's spent three weeks rehearsing for the role of Katharine Hepburn in the play "Tea at Five" and talking with the hometown crowd, she respects what Hepburn territory really means.
It means protecting the privacy of the maverick Yankee, trouser-clad actress from Hartford who electrified her way to Hollywood and is now, at 94, back home, secreted away in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook.
Previews start Thursday at Hartford Stage, so time is precious for Mulgrew She could only allow a half-hour for Saturday's interview. By noon, she was punctually off to her first rehearsal on the actual stage where she will perform.
Fortunately, Mulgrew talks fast.
She also talks deep, with resonance. Some call it sultry. Mulgrew calls it "a little whiskey."
She has the heart-shaped face, lightly dotted with freckles, and the upswept, dark brown hair that have caused people to tell her since she was 18 that she looks like Hepburn.
On this day, Mulgrew is wearing a black two-piece workout suit - think a modern Hepburn in trousers.
And when she speaks, there is that inflection and tone that are Hepburn's trademark.
"I have to go very high in the hard palate in the first act," she says. "And then I'm deep into my larynx in the second act."
In the first act, she plays Hepburn at 31; in the second, she's 76. Mulgrew, 45, says she's "smack in the middle to play both sides."
Mulgrew has been immersing herself in Hepburn, reading everything she can, watching everything she can. She even tried for a few weeks to eat the food that Hepburn likes, which was "big, huge breakfasts," steak and baked potatoes.
"She called Spencer Tracy a baked potato," she says. "Solid, pure, dependable."
Mulgrew gave up on that diet, however, because she was worried she'd "blow up."
Hepburn also loved her tea. When the play starts, it's tea time.
"Around 4 or 5, your blood sugar plummets," Mulgrew says. "And tea picks you right up."
"Katharine Hepburn ran on pure fuel," she says. "She didn't need high grade."
As much as Mulgrew might have learned about Hepburn before coming to Hartford, she has learned something intriguing about her from the people she's met here.
"There's an unspoken pact from an entire community honoring her privacy," Mulgrew says, "something you would never find in California."
At a few social gatherings in Hartford, she says she has been "stealing little gems" of conversation that help deepen her understanding of this grand, still-mysterious actress.
"What drove her? What haunted her? What was her philosophy? What made her remain for 27 years with Spencer Tracy, a married man? What made her go back to her parents' home in Fenwick?"
"I'm going to give you the clues," Mulgrew says. "And you as audience should be my partner, my best friend."
Mulgrew already feels she knows why Hepburn always returned to Connecticut.
"This is a place I could call home," she says. "I'll move here when I'm 76 if that's the way you're treated.
"People are not as interested in her flaws as they are in her attributes," Mulgrew says. "But be forewarned - both will be explored."
She knows that Ellsworth Grant, Hepburn's brother-in-law, plans to attend, and that Katharine Houghton, Hepburn's niece, with whom she has always had a close relationship, will be coming.
Mulgrew just doesn't want to know which performance.
This play has a much wider audience than Hepburn's family and fans.
Because of the eight years that Mulgrew spent as Capt. Kathryn Janeway on TV's "Star Trek: Voyager," Hartford Stage has received an unprecedented worldwide rush of ticket orders. They came from 31 states, including Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas, Alabama and Hawaii; and from Canada, England, Ireland, Germany, Slovenia, Australia, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Israel.
"[`Star Trek' fans] are devoted," Mulgrew says. "It's almost unconditional support that continues to dazzle and daunt and thrill me. Trekkies are very smart, science-minded, but liberal. You don't come from Australia and Germany because you have some small mystical interest."
Another contingent - almost as big as the Trekkies - will be coming from her family and that of her husband, Tim Hagen. Mulgrew is one of eight children. Her husband, a Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio, is one of 14.
"They'll all be here," Mulgrew says.
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