Kate Mulgrew, Rosanno Brazzi and child actress in "A Time for Miracles"
|By Harry Harris
Inquirer TV Writer
A Time for Miracles, about the first native American canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, is an especially appropriate program for Christmas Week.
That's the opinion of Kate Mulgrew, who portrays Mother Seton - Elizabeth Bayley Seton (1774-1821) — in the two-hour "ABC Theater" production at 9 tonight.
"It's a very open week for religious subjects," the actress from Dubuque, Iowa, said, by transatlantic telephone from Dublin, "a perfect time, for a program about America's only female saint.
"It's great tribute to America, not to mention Christianity.
"Christmas figures in the first scene, and periodically afterwards. Mother Seaton loved Christmas. She's shown celebrating Christmas rich, poor, and at the height of her piety."
Miss Mulgrew who starred in NBC's "Mrs. Columbo" series (later retitled "Kate Loves A Mystery"), is in Ireland until February for a six-hour ABC mini-series, "The Manions of America," scheduled to be aired next season.
It's one of several projects that have made her a frequent visitor to Ireland during the past five years. One was a movie, Tristan and Iseult, with Richard Burton.
"I think I've exhausted Ireland," she said. "I've been here so much that my mother told, me to buy a home."
Her current assignment means, to her regret, that she'll be unable to celebrate Christmas with her parents and at least the two youngest of her siblings.
"That will be a first for me. I'll miss it. It's a very special time at home."
Instead, during the Yuletide pause in production, she'll be in Florence, Italy, with her fiance, Roberto Meucci, who is a shoe designer.
A Time for Miracles (a phrase also applicable to Christmas), Miss Mulgrew reports, lives up to its title.
"The miracles attributed to Elizabeth Seton, however, were not performed as the Vatican required.
"Christian miracles are supposed to resemble in some form the inimitable kind performed by Christ.
"Hers extraordinarily, were within the sphere of humanity."
Miss Mulgrew plays the role from about 25, her own age, until Mother Seton's death at 47. During that time span Mother Seton founded the American Sisters of Charity, the first free Catholic day school (precursor of parochial schools) and the first Catholic orphanage.
"She was a Protestant, beautiful and well-educated, the mother of five children. She converted to Catholicism after her husband died and was then ostracized by New York society for, what they considered a preposterous decision.
"In the case of the Sisters of Charity, the rules that said a sister must be unmarried were broken to permit her to found the order while raising her children. That was the first miracle.
"The second miracle was the amazing fortitude with which she was able to bear the death of two of her children.
"A third miracle was her founding of a free, coeducational school - for the rich and poor, boys and girls. That was, as unheard of then as saying, today, 'I'll be coming to lunch by jet.'
"The fourth miracle was that though she couldn't qualify, because of her children, for one of the primary considerations for canonization, reununciation of the world and all worldly goods and attachments, by her 40th year she had achieved such a plateau of spiritual enlightenment and communion with Christ that she was a model to the Sisters of Charity who believed in her motto: serenity and discipline through love.
"There's a fifth miracle in there somewhere, but I can't remember it."
Does the actress herself believe in miracles?
"I certainly do. In my own life there has been nothing tantamount to a practical miracle. I don't believe in taking literally words like 'Whereas I was blind, now I see.' I think that what Christ meant is that through faith the blind see.
"I've certainly experienced spiritual miracles — love; suffering, redemption — but only through faith.
"A miracle is only in your own soul.
"Christ doesn't suddenly say, 'Oh, Kate,' then ask me to exercise my will toward Him, to leave behind a little of the corruption with which we're born and raised.
"That's difficult for all earthly creatures. It's difficult certainly for an actress.
"I'm not intensely religious. I'm not, by any means, a model of Christianity; but I am religious in a hopeful sense. I'm not a very disciplined Christian, but I have a deep, abiding love of God.
"We're not here to lead happy, wonderful lives. We're here to learn. If I didn't believe that, I'd shoot myself tomorrow.
"Two of my sisters died. That was deeply upsetting. My heart was broken for the first time. That changes one, doesn't it? But it's all part of growing."
Giving up for adoption a daughter (whose father she has declined to identify) is, Miss Mulgrew said, "a prime example of what I'm talking about."
"That may be the one completely unselfish thing I've done in my life. It was God at work, with a little help from me.
"It's what I meant about miracles through faith. I just believed utterly that God would take care of me and of her, and He did, but not without the agony. I fully expected that.
"At one time, I thought I'd like to become a nun, but it was purely dramatic — theatrical thinking.
"I wonder if my vocation is the one to serve God best. I think it is.
"It's a tough one. I think Christ expects me to exercise a very special Christianity. In the theater, in this business, all goes against solitude, selflessness, worldly renunciation. There are too many distractions, too many people, absolutely too much of everything to enable me to be alone with God.
'There are special difficulties in portraying a saint.
"I knew about Mother Seton earlier. She was not one of my idols, but I did learn about her within my rather severe Catholic education. Once I got the film, I did a great deal of research, so I now know much more.
"There are only two approaches to playing a saint. The initial way, basically agnostic, is to sort of overdo it, automatically assuming that a saint is not a human being.
"The second and far better way, of course, is to assume that a saint is in a sense someone chosen to, reach a certain pinnacle in life.
"Id love to portray other saints. People always mention St. Joan, but I think she's a little overdone. I think the Ingrid Bergmans and Lynn Redgraves of the world should give her a rest. If I ever do play her, though, I suppose I should do it now, before I'm older.
"I'd like to do saints we don't know about, like Therese of Lisieux - an incredible saint!"
Are "good girls" her forte? Miss Mulgrew wryly conceded that she's played "quite a few."
Her first two professional roles, landed the same day and then played concurrently via daily commuting between New York and Stratford, Conn.- Mary Ryan in "Ryan's Hope" (she wound up playing the role for 2 1/2 years) and Emily Webb in the American Shakespeare Theater production of Our Town — were both "very good."
"I usually play heroines," she said. "I have an honest face and the kind of open character that doesn't suit a bitch or villainess. Audiences find me sympathetic.
"I had a tough time. I'm too strong for either a goodie-goodie or a baddie. I've always played a woman of substance.
"Of late, I think I've acquired the kind of reputation I set out to get as a flexible actress who can play any role if given adequate preparation time.
"I was pretty bad as David Janssen's mistress in the TV mini-series `The Word.' And I was even worse, a couple of seasons ago, as J.R.'s mistress in 'Dallas.' I had a great time doing that. She was really bad, that girl.
"There are roles I'd like to play — like Masha in Three Sisters. And though I'm certainly not beautiful enough for it, William Butler Yeats' beloved, Maud Gonne, a stunning beauty, who created a revolution in Ireland.
"I don't think I'll be doing another series. I did about 16 episodes as Kate Columbo. I was pleased with my own stamina.
"I learned an invaluable lesson - a TV series is not my cup of tea. If it was, my series would have been a success.
"Right now I'm enjoying playing Rachel Clement in 'The Manions of America.'
"It's a marvelous role. Rachel is English gentry, very upper-upper. She's everything - arrogant, willful, selfish and vulnerable. She's live, fresh, good, bad. It's not a departure for me. I'm all those things.
"She's a joy to play, but that's nothing unusual — I've enjoyed playing almost everything I've done.
"As Mrs. Columbo, I wasn't allowed to be cross or quick. I got a lot of hell from NBC for my candor.
"All I did was tell the truth when I was asked how I liked doing the series. If you work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and are unfulfilled artistically and say so, the network warns you about biting the hand that feeds you. Who's feeding whom?
"You can't win. It's a Catch 22 right down the line: I don't know what alternative I have. They'd all love to compromise me, but I can't change my personality to suit the masses. Invention is not my life.
"I don't know why stories about me always give the impression I'm a tough, hard-driving broad. Maybe male journalists put me down because I can't sit there and bat my eyelashes. If I'm asked a straight, question, I give a straight answer.
"How about this for your headline: `Sweet, lovely Kate Mulgrew, deep in the heart of Dublin'?
"I was quoted once as saying men are essentially creepy. Anybody fool enough to write down something like that from a 19-year-old girl should be in a different profession. I'd probably had a fight with my boyfriend that morning. At 19, it's a miracle if you know even half of what you're saying.
"My mind is a little clearer now. I think men are wonderful. I kiss you all!"