The New York Times

March 2, 2003

A Starship Captain Gets to Play a Star

By Ron Jenkins

No one watching Kate Mulgrew's stage portrait of Katharine Hepburn a year ago at Hartford Stage in Connecticut would have suspected that she was apprehensive about returning to live theater after a seven-year stint as Capt. Kathryn Janeway in the series "Star Trek: Voyager."

In the one-woman "Tea at Five," now in previews Off Broadway at the Promenade Theater, where it opens next Sunday, Ms. Mulgrew must hold the stage alone as the character, Katharine Hepburn, reminisces about her life. There is nothing to lean on except courage, Matthew Lombardo's script and the staging of the director, John Tillinger.

But Ms. Mulgrew believes that fear is essential to performing. "There's a terror inherent in any actor who is going to take a role to the limit," she said recently. "If you hedge your bets, there's nothing to worry about, but the terror comes in knowing that you're going to give everything away."

Seated in her Upper West Side living room, Ms. Mulgrew, 47, was speaking a few weeks before the play's New York premiere, sometimes peppering her comments with quotations from both the Hepburn character in "Tea at Five" and Captain Janeway. Playfully channeling the two figures by using accents and body language, she created the illusion that the other women were participating in the conversation, like fierce spirits refusing to be left out of the limelight.

With her slim build, high cheekbones and auburn hair, Ms. Mulgrew bears a physical resemblance to Ms. Hepburn, so much so that Mr. Lombardo wrote "Tea at Five" with her in mind. The play is set in the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Conn., and is divided into two parts: 1938, when Ms. Hepburn was 31 and battling with Hollywood; and 1983, when she was 76 and hobbling about after a car accident. Mr. Lombardo said he decided to write the play after watching "Star Trek: Voyager" with a mutual friend of his and Ms. Mulgrew's, Nancy Addison, who had appeared with Ms. Mulgrew on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope." Mr. Lombardo was a writer for the series "Another World." The current production has also been seen at the Cleveland Playhouse and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

Her legs curled under her on the couch, Ms. Mulgrew alternately analyzed and gave voice to the thoughts of her imaginary guests like a medium at a séance. Ms. Hepburn appeared more frequently than Captain Janeway. In mid-sentence, Ms. Mulgrew's straightforward Midwestern speech patterns would slow down to the aristocratic cadences that make the Hepburn voice unmistakable.

"It is my business to be fascinating," said Ms. Mulgrew as Ms. Hepburn, suddenly lifting her chin to a patrician angle, but just as quickly slipping out of the posture and accent to clarify the distinction between herself and her character. "Of course," she explained with a laugh, "I have never been able to say that about myself. I am, after all, Irish Catholic. We go to hell for saying such things."

Ms. Mulgrew, who was born and grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, said that when she was a young girl, she did not like Katharine Hepburn: "I thought she was strident. And I was likened to her so often that I resented her. But when I began reading about her to prepare for this play, I discovered the things about the family experiences that shaped her and it broke my heart. So during the rehearsals, this crazy love affair began. I have never met Hepburn, but now I talk about her as if I were a friend or relative. I won't listen to bad stories about her. As a child, she was a rather geeky and extraordinarily lonely creature. She was driven to succeed like a thoroughbred, but right underneath it was a vulnerability unlike any other star of her day."

Ms. Mulgrew said she believed that much of Ms. Hepburn's drive could be traced to her need to overcome the grief she felt at the loss of her older brother, who committed suicide. Particularly moving, Ms. Mulgrew said, because of her own past, was a story she remembered reading in which Ms. Hepburn, at the age of 13, had cut down the body of her brother after he hung himself. "I had a lot of tough knocks before I was 27," Ms. Mulgrew said, including the loss of two younger sisters.

Yet in spite of her feelings of closeness to the character, Ms. Mulgrew said, she chose not to seek out Ms. Hepburn while working on the role. Mr. Lombardo made a similar choice. "I decided early on not to contact the Hepburn estate," Mr. Lombardo said. "I wanted to keep my objectivity." Reached by telephone, a family member said that Ms. Hepburn, who is 95 and lives in Connecticut, was not available for comment.

Imagining the conversation among her, Ms. Hepburn and Janeway, Ms. Mulgrew said: "It would be a lot about overcoming sorrows. Janeway lost her father. Hepburn her brother. I lost two sisters. We'd talk about that. How we were formed. Why we need to do what we do. Then secret things would be said about men. A lot about sex.

"Strong women need to be very vulnerable in their private lives. We would talk about how we so wanted that great love affair. Each of us would have had one. And we would talk about how the man was bigger than we were and how we made it so. How we like being sort of girlish, which is always the flip side of being a strong leader."

Ms. Mulgrew said she thought that in Ms. Hepburn's liaison with Spencer Tracy, Tracy excited a girlishness in Ms. Hepburn. It was similar, she said, to what her husband, Tim Hagan, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio last year, "excited in me, and what Janeway's fiancé excited in her before he left her, which he had to do because he thought she was never coming back."

Asked what she imagined Ms. Hepburn might say if she saw the play, Ms. Mulgrew wrinkled her forehead and laughed: "I think she'd say, `Not bad.' And that's about it."

Ron Jenkins, a professor of theater at Wesleyan University, is the author of ``Dario Fo & Franca Rame: Artful Laughter'' and the translator of many of Mr. Fo's plays.

copyright 2003, The NY Times