Katharine Hepburn was still alive when the drama about her, Tea at Five, opened in her home state of Connecticut, but she never met the woman who plays her. Hepburn by then was in seclusion at the family estate and died June 29, not long after the show moved off-Broadway in New York.
Kate Mulgrew resembled Hepburn in so many ways -- including style and demeanor -- that playwright Matthew Lombardo wrote his script with her in mind. This became a bit of irony for Mulgrew, who didn't always enjoy the comparisons that shadowed much of her career. But when she got the offer, she researched the star's life to the hilt.
"Now mind you I never met the lady, which I believe has stood me in good stead," she says. "With her death one could say I have carte blanche but I don't see it that way at all."
Mulgrew goes through a punishing vocal process to enhance the resemblance, which is now on view through January at the Cuillo Centre in downtown West Palm Beach. There's a possibility to extend through February, and a national tour beckons after that.
"This is a woman who very clearly lived a remarkable life. It's my job to realize her to the best of my ability while endowing her with the qualities only I can understand from my own experience," she says.
Mulgrew portrays Hepburn in the first act as a 31-year-old in 1938 during a career slump. After intermission, she drops her voice two octaves for Hepburn at the age of 76.
Mulgrew got the role shortly after completing a thrilling but "tough seven years" as Capt. Kathryn Janeway on TV's Star Trek: Voyager series, and the film Star Trek: Nemesis.
She says the transition back to the theater has been well spent but calls Tea at Five rigorous.
That might have something to do with director John Tillinger, who also directed Frank Gorshin in Say Goodnight, Gracie. Gorshin has said similar things about his one-man show.
"To give less than 100 percent in this show would be suicide," she says. "So it's my job to lead an intensely disciplined life."
She hardly talks except when onstage performing the show.
"I shut down after two o'clock. I do not answer the phone and don't talk until I go to the theater, two hours early.
"It takes me an hour to warm up physically and vocally, and an hour to make myself up. I go home directly afterwards. The diet is very strict because she was so fit and thin.
"And that's the day."
Mulgrew, 48, was born in Dubuque, Iowa to a well-to-do family. She moved to New York at 17 and, while studying with Stella Adler, got twin roles, as Mary Ryan on the daytime soap Ryan's Hope and in a stage production of Our Town. The television series Mrs. Columbo came later, along with films such as Throw Mama From the Train.
The actress took a break in late summer and early fall to be with her family in Cleveland, Ohio. Husband Tim Hagan, a county commissioner, ran for governor last year. Mulgrew hit the campaign trail with him while in the early stages of Tea at Five, but spent this break catching up.
"I'm back here to stare at my husband and tell him how much I love him. I'll spend whole days doing that," she says.
Previews began at the Cuillo last week and the show opened Tuesday. Mulgrew says that playwright Lombardo had some ideas about changes he wanted to try, but the West Palm Beach run will be the same show as New York. Any changes will be considered for the later tour.
Like most people, Mulgrew knew the strong-willed Hepburn's reputation. But after getting into the role and researching her life, Mulgrew found much softer material. She says Hepburn cloaked her true nature in her lifetime.
"She was defined by her sorrows, make no mistake about that," Mulgrew says. "So my hook was her vulnerability. I went the other way around at it, and it has served me every single day for a year and a half."
Although Tea at Five (referring to Hepburn's family ritual) is a solo play, Mulgrew is called upon to evoke other characters in Hepburn's life. The addition of invisible or silent partners onstage is being used increasingly by writers to add dimension to what's been dubbed the monodrama.
"This is how it all began -- The Greeks did it this way," Mulgrew says.
"If the actor is dedicated enough, focused enough and true enough, the character can be realized in such a way to almost dupe the audience into believing many characters have shared the stage."
The unseen presences in Tea at Five include Hepburn's parents, her brother Tom who died at 15, and of course Spencer Tracy.
"I have many evocations of characters in this play but my real job is to lift them up to such an extent that they're with me. And that's a challenge."