Palm Beach Post
The Fate of Kate
Sunday, October 26, 2003

By Hap Erstein

She has been Mary Ryan, the strong-willed daughter on the daytime soap opera Ryan's Hope. She has been Capt. Kathryn Janeway, the commander of a Federation starship on Star Trek: Voyager. 

But even as actress Kate Mulgrew played these two headstrong characters, it was hard not to miss her striking physical and vocal resemblance to a third kindred spirit.

All of her life, people have been telling Mulgrew how much she reminds them of screen legend Katharine Hepburn. Meant as a compliment, it was quite a burden for a young lass from Dubuque, Iowa, who had her sights set on a show business career.

"I would say, 'Thank you very much, but my name is Kate Mulgrew,' " she recalls with a laugh.

In time, she learned to take the benign comments with a bit more tact: "I certainly grew more grateful."

Now, she has accepted her fate and spent the past two years appearing in a one-woman biographical show on Hepburn, the off-Broadway hit, Tea at Five. On Saturday, she begins three months of performances at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts -- the touring production's first engagement since New York, and a theatrical coup for West Palm Beach.

As a young actress, Mulgrew concedes she was resentful of being under the shadow of Hepburn. While she does not remember describing Hepburn as geeky, "I did think her strident and I felt that her philosophies were contrary to my own," Mulgrew says.

Eventually, of course, like the rest of the English-speaking world, Mulgrew came to appreciate Hepburn's extraordinary abilities as an actress.

"Oh, well, it was indisputable, particularly in her later performances, she was a complete knockout," Mulgrew enthuses. "African Queen. Lion in Winter I thought was absolutely stellar, almost perfect that performance. And early on, Alice Adams I thought was beautifully revealing and very, very true to the inner belly of Hepburn."

Stage directors have long noticed Mulgrew's resemblance to Hepburn. In 1983, for instance, she was cast as socialite Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story -- a role Hepburn originated -- at a regional theater in Alaska. "I played that, but that was serendipity," she says, sounding annoyed at the mention of the production. "I also played Eleanor of Aquitaine, but that was in high school and doesn't count."

Still, Mulgrew, 48, the wife of politician Tim Hagan, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Ohio last year, insists that impersonating Hepburn was the furthest thing from her mind. But then came the offer from playwright Matthew Lombardo, who wrote Tea at Five specifically with Mulgrew in mind. 

As Lombardo recalls, "I was with my very good friend Nancy Addison -- she played Jillian on Ryan's Hope -- about five years ago, we were flipping through the channels and all of a sudden Star Trek: Voyager came on. After we stopped howling from seeing Kate -- she's very funny in a space suit -- I said, 'Y'know, Nancy, she looks exactly like Katharine Hepburn. When she's done with all this Star Trek business, I'm going to write a play for her.' "

A few years later, he created Tea at Five and mailed off two copies. "One to Kate saying that Hartford Stage was interested in doing it. The other I sent to Hartford Stage saying that Kate Mulgrew would be interested in doing it. Mind you, neither one knew anything about it. The next day, fortuitously, they both called me and said, 'Yes, we want to do this play.' "

Change of personality

Tea at Five views Hepburn at two distinct points in her life. In Act One, she is 31 years old, her film career halted by the perception that she is "box office poison." So she lobbies for a comeback as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. In Act Two, more than four decades later, Hepburn is now 76, hobbled by an automobile accident, busy turning down Warren Beatty for a film he is making, but not too busy to reminisce about her life and career.

Although they portray the same woman, the two acts are a study in contrasts. As Mulgrew explains, Hepburn at 31 is "self-consumed, deeply agitated, unexamined, vulnerable, tough. Tougher than the reflective and self-deprecating and wiser Kate of Act Two."

It is a tricky transition to make during the 15-minute intermission and if you ask Mulgrew what goes on in her head during that time, she will answer quickly, "Very little. There is so little time to make the transformation. We are in a kind of cloistered and urgent silence, myself and my dresser. And as I dress -- I do the makeup and she's doing the wig, and then I get into the clothes -- (Kate) comes quite naturally."

Reviews in New York have noted Mulgrew's striking ability to mimic Hepburn's vocal mannerisms. "Well, we have a vocal similarity, so I wouldn't say that that was particularly tough, although it is not easy in Act One to reach that very high octave. She had a very high voice, about three octaves higher than my second act voice, so that sometimes is tough." 

There is also the challenge of the one-person play format. "I'm not sure that I ever considered them real drama," says Mulgrew. "I used to think that a drama required two partners and a fourth wall. But in my experience with this thing and then, of course, going to see other people do the same, I've learned that it is in fact high drama of a very particular kind."

Lombardo is quick to defend the script, pointing out there are more people in Tea at Five than Hepburn. "There's really 63 other characters that she's talking to or about or giving the audience information on. She not only has to play Katharine Hepburn, but she has to make these other people -- like Howard Hughes, Spencer Tracy, her agent Leland Hayward, her brother Dickie -- so real that it makes sense to an audience that they're there with her."

Whatever it is, Tea at Five works with audiences, as it proved in New York, running a healthy five months off-Broadway and turning a profit, despite being panned by a Hepburn family member. Actress Katharine Houghton, Hepburn's niece and co-star in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, attended a performance and was later quoted as saying, "If my aunt saw this, she'd slit her wrists." 

According to Lombardo, "I think it's more a matter of sour grapes," since Houghton has been peddling her own Hepburn play. "Apparently she wrote it, wants to star in it and it never got a production. None of the other Hepburns ever voiced anything against this play, because I think they have too much class." 

In any event, talk of moving the show to West Palm Beach began last May and plans were already set when Hepburn passed away in late July. Extending the run in New York was considered at that point, but the show's producers worried about how that would have been perceived.

Appearances' sake

"We didn't want it to look like we were capitalizing on her passing," notes co-producer Paul Morer. "We didn't want to say, 'OK, now that she's not with us anymore, we're going to extend.' "

Morer is bullish about the prospects for the play at the Cuillo. "We're confident that that venue and that area and that time of year will provide an audience that wants to see this," he says. "This is a good fit for us and for South Florida."

Later on, Tea at Five is likely to be booked into much larger theaters, but for now, it will be well showcased in the relatively intimate 375-seat playhouse. "The Cuillo is not dissimilar to the kinds of venues this show has been playing. The stage configuration is similar, so we didn't have to modify the scenery greatly. We believe it is going to look great there and I look forward to bringing other plays there in the future," Morer adds. 

Mulgrew, whose television résumé also includes the title role in the short-lived Mrs. Columbo series, has not only cleared her schedule to tour in Tea at Five, but intends to continue in the theater rather than heading back to television. 

"I wouldn't say I've been deluged with (TV) offers, and a part of that is probably my sort of myopic approach now to what I want, which is the theater."

Although Tea at Five has been a personal triumph for her, Mulgrew says her next stage project will have more than one performer. "I should think so," she says, then amends it to "I should hope so."

Still, she might just reprise Tea at Five on occasion, as long as she can sustain the illusion. "Well, one does age, so how long can I pull off the 31? The joke is I'll be doing 76 in Act One and 98 in Act Two soon," she says with a musical laugh. 

She also laughs at herself for her initial lack of appreciation of Hepburn, whom Mulgrew has come to admire fervently. 

"What evolved in my case was a serious kind of love affair," she says. "I think the real passport to her spectacular success was that you always read, just under the steel, an extraordinary fragility that had somehow overcome unspeakable sorrows that neither you nor I could possibly comprehend. 

"She never complained and she went forward with that kind of maverick grit. What I'm telling you is the fuel was fear and the fear was of failure. But that's what courage is. I think she defines courage."