When it comes to playing Hepburn in Matthew Lombardo's "Tea at Five," shy and retiring types need not apply. In that department, the assertive Kate Mulgrew has little to worry about.
Having commanded an intergalactic vessel for seven years as Captain Kathryn Janeway in the UPN series "Star Trek: Voyager," Mulgrew seems capable of handling this challenging role back on Earth. She also has enough physical and vocal resemblance to pass as the big-screen Kate.
The critics seemed to agree, because "Tea at Five" garnered Mulgrew acting nominations for both the Outer Critics Circle and the Lucille Lortel awards in 2003.
When Mulgrew first prepared for this role, she knew that a literal-minded imitation of the great Kate's behavior would be a mistake. If one simply impersonates Hepburn's mannerisms, "you're doomed," Mulgrew says emphatically by phone from New York.
"My performance is coming from the inside out. I am not doing an impersonation at all, but am internalizing a character. My process was a bit mysterious. I went in with no small degree of trepidation, but in my research I developed an understanding of her."
Mulgrew also stresses that she and the playwright did a lot of homework in preparing "Tea at Five." Every fact or anecdote in the play, she notes, has "at least three sources of verification. All of it is true. I read every word documented on that woman."
"Tea at Five" presents Hepburn talking about her life and career while ensconced in her family's beloved home in Fenwick, Conn. The first act takes place at a nervous point in Hepburn's career in 1938.
After an initial splash as a movie star, her next few movies flopped. Even "Bringing Up Baby" failed commercially, and Hepburn was proclaimed box office poison.
Entering her 30s, she desperately wanted to be cast as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," which obviously did not come about. She also received the script for a play called "The Philadelphia Story" that would prove to be a comeback triumph on Broadway and later in Hollywood.
The play's second act takes place in 1983 when Hepburn, in her 70s, has a lifetime of memories to mull over. Many of these involve her family, whom Mulgrew describes as "an eccentric bunch of people" who meant the world to Hepburn. And, of course, there are stories about the real love of her life, actor Spencer Tracy.
One thing Lombardo's play brings out is that Hepburn was haunted throughout her life by her brother's suicide as a teen-ager. Hepburn's determination not to cry over personal and professional disappointments was one of the star's attributes that most impressed Mulgrew. "I don't believe she was allowed to grieve," she says.
Mulgrew also believes that Hepburn's self-imposed discipline in this regard directly relates to a screen and stage image in which Hepburn held back emotion as often as she showed it. That's why audiences always watched Hepburn, even when her characters seemingly weren't doing anything overtly dramatic.
"The gift was that presence. You can't take your eyes off her."
Through the years of researching and performing this role, Mulgrew has come to believe that the seemingly imperious Hepburn's defining character trait was "a vulnerability that both drove and shaped her. There is a tenderness to the play that's all very surprising. That's the whole point."
The audience is, in effect, brought into Hepburn's living room, where there is "the sense you came to a very unusual dinner party."
"Tea at Five" runs Jan. 18 to 23 at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $84. Call 410-547-SEAT or go online to www.ticketmaster.com.
Although this production is at the Hippodrome, it is in collaboration with Center Stage. The opening night performance Jan. 18 benefits Center Stage's artistic and educational programs. A limited number of $100 premium seats to the opening night gala includes a post-show reception with Mulgrew. For opening night gala tickets, call 410-986-4006.