Katharine Hepburn has been both an irritant and an inspiration to Kate Mulgrew. Early in her career, Mulgrew, who shares Hepburn's clipped voice, chiseled red-headed looks and authoritative presence, resented being compared to the screen legend.
"Nothing is more disconcerting to an actress than being compared to another actress who is superior in every way," Mulgrew said from her home near Cleveland.
Years later, Mulgrew's similarities to Hepburn helped her regain her theater legs after eight years aboard Star Trek: Voyager as Capt. Kathryn Janeway.
Mulgrew plays Hepburn in the one-woman show Tea at Five, which begins previews Nov. 1 at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach.
Matthew Lombardo wrote the show for Mulgrew after stumbling upon Voyager while channel surfing and noting her striking resemblance to Hepburn.
He sent the script simultaneously to Michael Wilson, artistic director at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, Hepburn's home state, and Mulgrew on the Voyager set in Los Angeles. He told Wilson that Mulgrew was interested in the show and Mulgrew that Wilson was. Fortunately, both took the bait.
Mulgrew, who was ending her tour of duty with Voyager, said she accepted because she was eager to return to the theater, and it was the best script she received.
"I don't mean to sound cavalier about acting in Voyager, which was intense stuff," she said. "But television is small. The camera is clinical. I'd spent eight years deprived of a live audience. That's the ultimate acid test of using the mind and body as the sole instruments, without an intermediary."
Mulgrew is best known for her television work, most notably, Mary Ryan on the daytime soap Ryan's Hope, the lead in Mrs. Columbo, and Capt. Janeway. Her film roles have included Billy Crystal's shrewish wife in <>Throw Momma from the Train.
But the actress wasn't new to the stage. She's played Desdemona in Othello, Emily in Our Town, the title role in Hedda Gabler and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in regional theater, and debuted on Broadway in 1994 in Peter Schaffer's Black Comedy. She'd even ventured onto Hepburn's turf playing Tracy in a stage version of The Philadelphia Story.
Mulgrew and Hepburn hail from different galaxies. Mulgrew, 48, is a Midwestern Irish Catholic. Hepburn, who was 96 when she died in June, was a patrician Yankee.
Nevertheless, "instinctively, intuitively, I get her," Mulgrew said.
The play, which takes its title from a Hepburn family ritual, presents the actress at two points in her life at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn. In Act One, set in 1938, she's 31. Branded as box-office poison after a string of flops, she's impatiently awaiting word from her agent on whether she's landed the most coveted role in Hollywood — Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.
The Act Two Hepburn is 76. Mellowed from the arrogant dynamo of her younger days, she looks back on a lifetime that includes her older brother's suicide, a record-breaking four Oscars and a longtime adulterous romance with Spencer Tracy.
Playing a 45 year-age span was a challenge, but not beyond Mulgrew's abilities, Lombardo said. "I knew she could do both. I wanted to give her a play that she could dive into and create a tour de force performance."
Mulgrew said, "I made up my mind from the beginning that unless I could realize her as an actress it wouldn't be worth it. It wasn't going to be an imitation or a vanity piece."
She found the key to her portrayal in a trait seldom associated with Hepburn, who was notorious for bucking convention in everything from her boyish personal style to her tough-minded negotiating with movie moguls in an era when most stars were studio pawns.
"Watch her movies," Mulgrew said. "Watch closely. You see an almost subcutaneous vulnerability. She's always close to tears. That's not a trick. That's Hepburn. She cloaked herself in all that toughness."
Audiences have warmed to Mulgrew's Hepburn. After Tea at Five's February 2000 opening in Hartford, the play moved to Cleveland, Boston and New York, where it ran six months at the Promenade Theatre. A national tour is set to take off in August.
The play has weathered some turbulence. Hepburn's niece, actress Katherine Houghton, complained in the Hartford Courant that "if my aunt saw this, she'd slit her wrists." Reviews have faulted Lombardo's script as unrevealing.
Lombardo, who says he did not consult the Hepburn family when he wrote the show because it would have clouded his objectivity, suggests that Houghton's remarks may have been provoked more by her inability to sell her own script about Hepburn than his play's deficiencies.
As for the critics, they may be using the wrong yardstick to measure the show, he said.
"If you go looking for answers as to why she did what she did, I think you'll be disappointed. If you want to an evening at the theater with one of the great legends of film, you'll enjoy it."
The play, which is directed by John Tillinger, will run through Jan. 25 at the Cuillo Centre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. For tickets, call 835-9226.