August 27, 2002
A star's trek to Hepburn
The Two Kates - Mulgrew plays Hepburn at ART
By Alexander Stevens
CNC Staff Writer
Kate Mulgrew looks like Katharine Hepburn, sounds like Katharine Hepburn and — judging by the critical and popular response to " Tea at Five " — she also acts like Katharine Hepburn.
" Tea at Five " is Mulgrew’s one-woman show about the iconic film star, and audiences and critics embraced it during its recent run at the Hartford Stage Company. And that’s saying something — people in Hartford closely guard their memories of hometown hero Hepburn.
The production has been scooped up by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where it will run at the Loeb Drama Center, Sept. 8-22. Beyond that, there’s talk of Broadway.
" That’s the intention, " says Mulgrew. " This could be construed as a Broadway tryout. "
It’s hard to imagine an actress who’s more loved and admired than Hepburn. Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman may all be immortal, but none of them seemed to capture the country’s heart the way Hepburn did. Davis seemed too hard; Bergman and Audrey Hepburn, too remote. Katharine Hepburn is the one you’d want over for supper, and you know you’d be wowed by her casual beauty, even as you were charmed by her spunk.
" We love her because of her true grit, " says Mulgrew. " Americans love nothing more than that. Particularly now, as we’re living in a time of such global turmoil, it’s wonderful for people to go to the theater and be reminded of what defined their country. [We had] women like Hepburn who put on trousers, cut their own deals, had the stiff upper lip and the gumption to walk when it wasn’t to her liking. She called the shots her way, and risked everything to do so. She so exemplified the Yankee spirit that is, as you know, the pulse of this country. One could even view her as the Eleanor Roosevelt of movies. "
According to Mulgrew, playwright Matthew Lombardo was watching an episode of " Star Trek: Voyager " — the show that made Mulgrew a household name as Captain Janeway for seven seasons — and he said, " That woman should play Katharine Hepburn. "
Three days later, he had written the script, and he sent it to Mulgrew.
" The minute I read it, I recognized it immediately for its excellence, " says Mulgrew. " The way he structured it is very unusual, compelling and effective. In Act I, he has her at 31 years of age, having just been labeled box office poison. She’s on a tight wire. You see her aggravation, her youth, her vulnerability, her smarts, her temper, her temperament, and you get a brief history of what drove her to become the great star she became. You see all of that with more provocative windows into what moved her and what disturbed her. "
Part of what disturbed her occurred when she was just 14 years old. That’s when she found her brother hanging from a noose. She was the one who cut him down.
Mulgrew tells that story as a way of explaining one of the keys that helped her unlocked the mystery of Hepburn.
" As an actress, you want [to find] the underbelly of this woman, you want the pulse, otherwise it’s just another vanity piece, another person doing an imitation, and that’s not at all where we wanted to go with this, " she says. " Beneath that privacy was a very, very interesting woman who fought hard to conceal herself. I find it fascinating. It’s the old thing of what you can’t see you really long to know. "
Mulgrew is articulate, a trait that’s not as common among actors as you might think. And that’s part of what makes so much sense in the matching of these two Kates. They both convey intelligence. Hepburn was a Bryn Mawr graduate and, of course, she’ll always be associated with that voice — that trained, arched quality that Mulgrew also possesses.
" That Yankee clip, " says Mulgrew, who grew up in Iowa. " I would say that our tonality, our vocal octave is very similar. You could even call it affected if you wanted to, be my guest. She prided herself on being abrupt and fascinating, as she would put it. She wanted to be fascinating, so she made her speech fascinating. And it’s up to the audience to determine whether or not she actually shaped her speech to make it more fascinating. It’s my personal conviction that she did, " says Mulgrew, as she lapses into an unmistakable impression of Hepburn, " because I don’t think anybody really tahlks like that. "
The second act of " Tea at Five " revisits Hepburn in 1983. She’s won her fourth Academy Award for " On Golden Pond " and, Mulgrew says, " she’s more reflective and bemused. She’s not only willing to share, she’s also willing to be self-deprecating. "
The role of Hepburn would appear to be a few light years away from " Star Trek. " Mulgrew admits that she’s relieved that the sci-fi series is over (although she reprises Janeway in an upcoming film " Star Trek: Nemesis " ). But, she says, " I’m not stupid. I’m also very grateful. Had I not had that chapter in my life, I doubt that these opportunities would be so readily available to me, or that I would feel as if I deserve them. So all things considered, it was a marvelous shot. I took it. It paid off. And I’m still young enough to have another 20 years [of acting]. "
" Voyager " also had its own brand of quality and integrity. Mulgrew points out that it was one of the few TV shows that was able to sustain itself without any real romantic/sexual focus.
" [‘Star Trek’ creator Gene] Roddenberry was not interested in sex in space, " she says.
Now, from Captain Janeway, she’s been beamed to Katharine Hepburn. Does that kind of cosmic leap require a fair amount of audacity from an actress?
Mulgrew takes a long pause; she clearly doesn’t like the word " audacity. "
" If you wanted to use the word audacious, that would be fine, " she says. " I would prefer to say, as I think Hepburn herself would say, it perhaps takes some grit. "