One Great Kate Deserves Another
by Bob Brink
Actress Kate Mulgrew long has been compared with Katharine Hepburn — in the Hollywood legend’s looks, her deep, brittle voice, her assertive personality and independent spirit. But there was another aspect of Hepburn that the public knew little about, and Mulgrew has that, too, in common with her.
Hepburn was 14 when she found her 15-year-old brother dead from suicide in a family friend’s home in New York City. He was hanging from a twisted sheet in the attic. Mulgrew suffered the loss of two sisters while growing up. It’s an experience, Mulgrew says, that has a permanent effect on the grieving loved one.
“I think to her dying day, [Hepburn] was, in a sense, continually grief-stricken by the fact that her brother did not confide in her,” Mulgrew says.
The incident — along with Hepburn’s famous romance with Spencer Tracy — serves, Mulgrew says, as the bona fide focus of Tea at Five, a one-person play about the four-time Academy Award winner. It runs Nov. 1 to Jan. 25 at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in downtown West Palm Beach (561-835-9226). The play ran for 18 weeks at the off-Broadway Promenade Theatre in New York, where Mulgrew garnered a 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance and a 2003 Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Actress.
Mulgrew has appeared in several films, among them Throw Momma From the Train and A Stranger Is Watching, a number of television roles including Mrs. Columbo in the 1979 series Kate Love a Mystery, and several stage productions, most notably Hedda Gabler and Black Comedy. But she probably is best-known as Capt. Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, which ended in 2001 after seven years. When playwright Matthew Lombardo saw her in the Star Trek role, he immediately noted Mulgrew’s resemblance to Hepburn — in looks, mannerisms and the hard edge to her voice.
“He was a great pal of my best friend, actress Nancy Addison, who was dying of cancer,” Mulgrew says, speaking by telephone from Cleveland, where she was taking a respite from performing. “[Lombardo] told her, ‘She needs to play Katharine Hepburn. If I write it, will you get it to her?’ And Nancy said yes. He went to Miami and wrote it in three days.
“I went for it right away because it was so clearly compelling, if not provocative. And very bold. I’d never done a one-person show in my life. I was desperate to get back into theater after seven years in the Delta Quadrant [the fictional outer space on Voyager]. I immersed myself in research, and slowly she [Hepburn] evolved in the rehearsal process.”
One of the things Mulgrew discovered in her research was the similarity between her and Hepburn’s backgrounds. Though Mulgrew grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and Hepburn near Hartford, Conn., both were products of “rather privileged” homes, as the ex-Midwesterner put it, though hers was “probably not as high-toned as Hepburn’s.” Mulgrew’s father operated a construction business and was educated, as was her mother, a professional artist; Hepburn was the daughter of a physician and a suffragist. Both families suffered tragedies.
Hepburn, her impersonator says, "had to overcome sorrows that most people are unfamiliar with, particularly in their early lives - the suicide of her brother, Tom. That really defined her. She found him. She cut him down. In fact, they found her still supporting his body in a sort of irrational effort to save him. The eaves in the attic were very low, so in order to effect his own death, this young boy had to pull on that sheet consistently throughout the night. What made it even more difficult for Kate was her father's denial of suicide, when it was clear that's what it was."
A number of theories about the reason for the suicide were advanced, Mulgrew says. However, "Kate has written, and it has been implied, that Tom was having some trouble with a girlfriend. I have surmised that he took her rejection of him very hard. The Hepburn kids were not to be rejected, and the boys certainly were not to be considered in any way less than very male. I don't know if she questioned his maleness, I don't know if he was questioning that. But for a 15-year-old boy to do this ... You know, he was a stellar student, an athlete - a marvelous kid by all accounts. I suspect that something very malignant was happening in his psyche."
Her father wanted to portray the incident to the press as a magic hanging trick gone wrong, "and as a result of that denial and the brutal quickness of the burial, Kate fell into a pretty serious depression," Mulgrew says.
Mulgrew, one of eight children in an Irish Catholic family, can empathize with her character's pain. Asked how the childhood trauma of losing two sisters affected her understanding of Hepburn, she gropes for words and replies haltingly. She is Mulgrew the person here, not the actress, as she speaks in a voice that grows huskier and more brittle:
"Profoundly. It provided me with a knowledge of sadness, an insight into the kind of grief that most people never have. It's something that, for some diabolical reason, never changes and never goes away. I was the second-oldest child in the family, the oldest girl. The loss of one's siblings stays forever and constantly stimulates both guilt and an unending sorrow.
"Maggie was a baby, a crib death. Tessie died of a brain tumor at age 14. That was a long and grueling demise – it took about three years. It's one thing to try to grapple with their death. It's another to know that they themselves don't know how to handle it. And that is the tremendous, unspeakable sorrow of the very young dying. This was probably true of Tom - certainly of my sister."
Tea at Five takes place in the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Conn., and portrays her in two stages of her life. The first is at age 31, in 1938, after she has incurred a string of box office failures and developed a negative public image by dressing unfashionably, wearing no makeup and, in a refusal to play the celebrity game, declining to give autographs. In the second act, she is 76, in 1983, and does a lot of reminiscing, delving into her brother's suicide and, while hobbling about on a cane after a car accident, remembering her legendary 27-year affair with Spencer Tracy.
"Act two is easier," Mulgrew says, "because most theatergoing people are more familiar with the older Kate. It's the early part of Kate's career they're unfamiliar with."
Critics agree that Mulgrew captures both periods with considerable flair - but the physical transformation she undergoes for act two is particularly spellbinding. According to The Associated Press: "[Mulgrew] truly channels Hepburn, right down to the tremors and even shakier New England twang."
Indeed, Hepburn is best-known to later generations for On Golden Pond (1981) with Henry Fonda, after Parkinson's disease had gripped her; and, going back to when she was 44, The African Queen, a 1951 film with Humphrey Bogart. Hepburn, a 12-time Academy Award nominee, won her last of four for On Golden Pond. She was enormously disappointed when Vivien Leigh was chosen over her to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, but came roaring back on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story.
Few disagreed with the American Film Institute's choice of Hepburn as the top female star among its "50 Greatest Movie Legends."
Hepburn died June 29, after Tea at Five had played in four cities beginning in 2002: Hartford, Cleveland (home of Mulgrew's husband, Tim Hagan, unsuccessful 2002 candidate for governor of Ohio), Cambridge, Mass., and New York, where it closed in mid-July.
Hepburn's death spurred interest in the play, Mulgrew, 48, says. She adds, "It's so like human nature to be restimulated by somebody's life once it's no longer there. And such a life, such an American life, which so defines that generation and continues to resonate.
"I was really thrown for a loop when she died. I was shocked at my response, which was very emotional. I didn't know her, I never met her. I always thought that stood me in very good stead; I had a distance from the person so that I could endow the character as I saw fit creatively. And yet, when she died, and I was standing in the wings in the theater, I had to call upon every discipline in my being not to weep, knowing I was doing something that so represented what she loved, that she would never again do."
Before embarking upon the theater project, Mulgrew had not been favorably disposed toward Hepburn, whom she regarded as "strident," she told The New York Times. "And I was likened to her so often that I resented her."
While rehearsing the role, Mulgrew says, "what I was hoping for came to pass. I never had a fondness for her and thought this would be very tricky, indeed. She was a tough cookie. She was a complicated woman. But I fell in love with her, which is why the play has been successful. You can't bring something to full life as an actor if you don't love the character you're playing."
Everywhere the play has shown, Mulgrew says, the response has been wonderful. "Even in Hartford, where the community has been fiercely protective of her private life, the reaction was very positive."
Some of Hepburn's family members weren't as enthusiastic about Tea at Five. Her niece, Katharine Houghton, wrote a letter to The Hartford Courant calling the play "trash." She also wrote, "We think Kate Mulgrew is an awfully good actress."
Mulgrew shrugs off the comments; "She was kind to me and tough on the playwright. A predictable response." As for Hepburn herself, "I don't think she knew about my play. If she knew, she was probably in a stage in her life when it was not so important."
Mulgrew, who left her Midwestern roots behind to pursue acting in the tough environment of New York, seems bent on playing women like herself. Hepburn was, of course, a fiercely independent person, and so was Capt. Janeway, who struggled to retain her femininity while serving as the first female captain of the Voyager.
"You can draw some parallels," Mulgrew muses. "Both strong, remarkable women in their own right. But one is fictional and one is not. And therein lies a-a-ll the difference.
"I concocted Janeway. Hepburn concocted herself."
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