Worcester Telegram & Gazette

From one Kate to another
Mulgrew takes ‘Tea’ and re-creates Hepburn

By Richard Duckett

Wednesday, December 9, 2004

When playwright Matthew Lombardo wrote “Tea at Five,” his one-woman show about Katharine Hepburn, he had another Kate specifically in mind to play the part.

But Kate Mulgrew, who is perhaps most famous for playing Capt. Kathryn Janeway on UPN’s “Star Trek: Voyager,” had some thoughts about the legendary Hepburn (1907-2003) that weren’t necessarily full of tea and sympathy.

“Not much,” Mulgrew said of her personal feelings at the time concerning Hepburn’s life and personality.

“I thought she was strident and tough and opinionated to a fault.”

Those views, however, were to begin a transformation when Mulgrew looked at Lombardo’s script.

“I read it and I knew immediately he had captured the essence of her.” But would she take the part? Mulgrew joked that it didn’t hurt when Lombardo, on his recruiting mission, showed up at her door with a bouquet of lilies.

Flash forward, and Mulgrew has now been touring with “Tea at Five” for close to two years. She is currently bringing the show to the Shubert Theatre in Boston for an engagement that runs through Dec. 19. It has become, she said, “a project that delights me and brings me great joy every time I step onto the stage.”

The play consists of two tea-time conversations between Hepburn and an unseen audience in her family’s Connecticut home. The first act takes place in 1938 at a low point in her career. The play’s second half is set in 1983, by which point Hepburn is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. During the play, Hepburn relates the traumatic effects of the suicide of her brother, and talks about her stormy relationship with Spencer Tracy.

Albeit that Mulgrew is an acting pro who can take on any kind of role (Mary Ryan on “Ryan’s Hope,” “Mrs. Columbo”), playing Hepburn changed her mind about her subject.

“I came to have the highest regard for her and developed feelings of tenderness for her,” Mulgrew said during a recent telephone interview from New York just before coming to Boston. “This was a very difficult life — every moment of happiness she fought for.”

It could be also, that there are certain similarities between Mulgrew and Hepburn and that these led, however subconsciously, to a greater empathy when Mulgrew stepped into Hepburn’s shoes on the stage.

For one thing there is quite a physical resemblance between the two. Lombardo has said of Mulgrew, “she seems so Hepburnesque.”

Then there’s the fact that Mulgrew – who comes across as very friendly and engaging — speaks crisply and intelligently with a certain dry sense of humor. Hepburn was also known for her intelligence, and crisp and clear sentences.

Neither one of them, you suspect, has or would suffer fools gladly.

Both have manifested a clear-headed determination about their careers. From an admittedly well-heeled Yankee upbringing in Hartford, Hepburn went on to become a four-time Oscar award-winning actress and a strong woman in an industry and era that preferred women to be passive.

Mulgrew, 49, was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, the oldest girl in an Irish-Catholic family of eight.

“I’ve been acting all my life — all my thinking life,” she said.

There was a disagreement in the household about her acting proclivities. “Mother encouraged – father discouraged,” she said.

When she was 12, her mother brought home biographies of great actresses and began sending her daughter to summer acting schools.

While in London, Mulgrew unsuccessfully applied to a drama academy. When her father received the news back in Iowa he sent a message: “Get home.”

The daughter replied: “ ‘Not on your life … ’

“I just knew I was never going to go home and I had to do it alone.”

At the age of 17, she was living in New York City and studying acting with the famous Stella Adler.

She was trained for the stage, but also found considerable success performing in front of the camera. She portrayed Mary Ryan for two years on the ABC soap “Ryan’s Hope” (1975) while also playing the role of Emily in the American Shakespeare Theatre production of “Our Town” in Stamford, Conn.

“Looking back, there are a number of roles I would like to take another shot at,” she said. “As for the rest, I think how lucky I’ve been.”

With regard to Captain Janeway, “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done and therefore I’m proudest of it,” Mulgrew said.

But now, after seven years on “Star Trek: Voyager,” she’s back on the stage. In 2003, she received’s Audience Award for Favorite Solo Performance in “Tea at Five.”

Mulgrew said she never met or talked to Hepburn. “Which has stood me in good stead. She was so big, I can carry her in my own head and realize my own imagination.”

When the play was in Hartford, however, some members of Hepburn’s family did see “Tea at Five” and “their reactions were mixed to say the least,” Mulgrew said.

Not to worry. At least, Mulgrew doesn’t worry when she’s on the stage. “Anxiety recedes into joy when I step onto the stage,” she said.

Mulgrew doesn’t knock television or film — acknowledging that it has been very good to her. “I’ve had some wonderful opportunities in film,” she said.

Still, “I was trained for the theater and, of course, that’s my first love,” she said.

“There’s certainly much less money in the theater, so it’s a more personal thing. The real love. It’s love that lights up in the end. Stella (Adler) said if you do it for the money, you’re dead. And she’s quite right. I want to do good work now. I don’t want it to be laborious. I want it to be enjoyable.”

When an actress gets older, the number of roles offered can slow down. But this doesn’t appear to have fazed Mulgrew, just as it didn’t stop Hepburn from working and continuing to turn in great performances.

“Of course, when you’re a young lady, roles come because sex sells,” Mulgrew said.

“Of course, it slows down. But life slows down. And if we slow down, we have more time to give what counts.”