These days, Kate Mulgrew is delivering a pitch-perfect portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in the one-woman show "Tea at Five" - now at Boston's Shubert Theatre -but there was a time when Mulgrew steered clear of anything to do with the screen legend.
"I was never a fan of Katharine Hepburn. I had been likened to her so often early in my career, and I came to resent all the comparisons," says Mulgrew whose high cheekbones and throaty voice have long fueled comparisons with the elder Kate. "Early on, I developed a real antipathy for her. One wants to be an actress in one's own right, after all."
Mulgrew's opinion of the four-time Academy Award winner changed in 2002 when she began work on the play Matthew Lombardo wrote with her in mind.
"I always admired her work as an actress, of course, but it was only when I started doing the play that I became a real devotee of Katharine Hepburn, the person. She had such courage to lead a life of remarkable career achievement against a backdrop of such personal sadness of mostly self-imposed loneliness. She could be one tough Yankee. As I play it, I'm given the experience of suffering along with her. It's almost as if she visits me every time I play the role. It's a sort of alchemy. There is a kind of inexpressible union between the two of us, which can happen when you're married this closely to a character."
Under the direction of John Tillinger, "Tea at Five" is set in Fenwick, Hepburn's beloved Connecticut home. The first act depicts Hepburn at 31, just before she did "The Philadelphia Story," and the second shows her at 76, reflecting on personal matters like the childhood suicide of her brother, Tom, and her long affair with Spencer Tracy. Mulgrew - who first gained fame as the young heroine Mary Ryan on the now-defunct soap opera "Ryan's Hope" and later as Captain Kathryn Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager" - finds the older Hepburn easier to play.
"I'm 48, and I've almost always played older. I was playing "Mrs. Columbo, who was supposed to be 37, when I was 23. With the older Hepburn, it just seems like a more natural fit. My personality and disposition just match well to her reflections," says Mulgrew who is the mother of three and wife to Ohio politician Tim Hagan. "It's difficult to explain why, but the younger Kate is really harder work for me."
After seven years as the first female captain in Star Trek history, Mulgrew knows about hard work. "I'm so grateful to have had the 'Voyager' experience. It was the hardest and most meaningful work I have ever done. I'm very grateful to the viewers, too. They've been the best fan base in the world. They've been coming to see me from all over the world since the play's inception."
"Tea at Five" will be at the Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston,through Dec. 19. For tickets and information, call 1-800-447-7400 or visit www.wangcenter.org.