Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Kate Hepburn Inspires Courage, Says Actress Mulgrew
By Gail Appleson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The tenacity of Katharine Hepburn, who rose from box-office poison to Hollywood legend, is an inspiration to anxious Americans in troubled times, says the actress who portrays the film icon on a Manhattan stage.
"Her Yankee spirit reminds us what it is about this country that we really cherish and celebrate. Her life was very hard and yet she persevered," said Kate Mulgrew, who plays the indomitable Hepburn in the play "Tea at Five."
Mulgrew, 47, is best known for playing the first woman Star Trek captain, the dauntless Capt. Kathryn Janeway, during the seven-season television run of "Star Trek: Voyager."
In fact, the svelte Mulgrew, with her high cheekbones and dusky voice, bears such uncanny resemblance to Hepburn that playwright Matthew Lombardo wrote "Tea at Five" with Mulgrew in mind after seeing the Star Trek show.
The one-woman play is currently running at the Promenade Theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The real Hepburn, who is 95, lives a private life in Connecticut and has not seen the show, Mulgrew said.
The play presents Mulgrew with the challenging task of portraying Hepburn at ages 31 and 76, and doing it completely alone on the stage.
"As you can probably imagine, it's strangely kind of lonely. It's the first time I've undertaken anything like this," said Mulgrew.
"Usually one has other partners on stage. There's a sense of, you know, balance, because you can always measure yourself off someone else. So my partner is now the audience. Which, since I have no background as a stand-up comedian, is a very interesting experience."
Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Mulgrew studied acting in New York with Stella Adler and got an early break on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope." Other television work included the lead role in the series "Mrs. Columbo" -- later known as "Kate Loves a Mystery."
In "Tea at Five," Mulgrew commands the stage through two acts that both take place in the living room of the Hepburn family estate in Fenwick, Connecticut. The first act opens in 1938. The second act is set in 1983.
The audience first sees an energetic Hepburn with flowing, long red hair, a sleek white pants suit and open toe heels revealing bright red nail polish.
Hepburn has returned home from California after being labeled "box-office poison" by theater owners because of a series of flops that followed a 1933 Oscar for her role in "Morning Glory." In the latest blow, she learns that she has lost the part of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" to Vivien Leigh.
The second act shows a hobbling Hepburn with head tremors, cracked voice and her foot in a cast from a car accident. It is during this act that Hepburn relates the painful story of having to cut down the body of her adored 15-year-old brother after he hanged himself.
The second act also features Hepburn speaking about her 27-year liaison with actor Spencer Tracy, his temper and her vulnerability when she was with him.
Asked if it was difficult to portray a submissive Hepburn, Mulgrew said, "I serve my husband. I'm from a big Irish Catholic family. I know how to serve men. And I don't mean that in a slavish way. I mean it is a great pleasure to do so when you love somebody.
"He (Tracy) inspired that need in her and she responded. I'm talking about a fiercely loyal creature," Mulgrew said.
This loyalty was most likely a result of growing up in a large family, an experience that Mulgrew also shares.
"She (Hepburn) didn't love lightly or often. She loved very selectively and very deeply as is true of most people who come from very large families," said Mulgrew.
"I'm one of eight, she was one of six, my husband is one of 14. The family is very big and very important and we're rooted in it. So we don't need to seek a great deal of peripheral acquaintanceship to satisfy that need, I think it's fair to say."
Mulgrew acknowledged that being raised in a big family helped in her Star Trek role as she related to crew members.
"Yes," she said, "except there was a distance factor there. Which is also true in Hepburn. Janeway could never be one of the crew. She had to command them. She always had to be a little bit apart. And that was their comfort ... they looked to their leader."
Indeed, as Mulgrew sipped coffee in her Manhattan apartment filled with family photos that showed clear evidence that she can be playful, she was all business, answering questions with measured, controlled responses. Exuding an aura of cool elegance, she never lowered her shields.
She said one big difference between her and Hepburn, who never had children, is that the latter had a "myopic focus on her career" while Mulgrew said her own life has been enhanced by the choice to have a husband and children.
Mulgrew is married to politician Timothy Hagan, a Democrat, who lost the Ohio gubernatorial race last year. They have three children.
"They've defined me, whereas, this experience did not happen to her, so it did not shape her."