Great Kate!: Kate Mulgrew Plays Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five


February 7, 2002

Kate Mulgrew has one of the great voices: precise, controlled, yet sensual: "Helloooo, David," Mulgrew says when she gets on the phone. Her voice, husky, feral, curls around the receiver like a cat.

Kate Mulgrew has one of the great voices: precise, controlled, yet sensual: "Helloooo, David," Mulgrew says when she gets on the phone. Her voice, husky, feral, curls around the receiver like a cat.

She is speaking to me from the Hartford Stage, where she will be starring, from Feb. 7 through March 10, in a one-woman show, Tea at Five, written by Matthew Lombardo and directed by John Tillinger. She and Lombardo spoke between rehearsals about their work on Tea at Five.

The show it is about one of the great Hollywood icons, Katharine Hepburn. Act One features Hepburn at age 31, in flight from Hollywood—where she has been branded box-office poison by Louis B. Mayer—and plotting her comeback; in Act Two, Hepburn is 76, reflecting upon her legendary life. Both acts take place in Fenwick, the Hepburn family estate in Hartford, where Hepburn, now 96, still lives, ever-insistent on having always remained just one of the Hartford folks.

For the past seven years, Mulgrew has played another "Kathryn": Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Star Trek series "Voyager," which ended its run in May 2001. Internet fans have called the Mulgrew's Janeway "The Auburn Queen." Who better to play an icon than an icon herself?

When "Voyager" first aired, it immediately garnered a great deal of attention not only because it was a new Trek show but also because it was the first Trek show to feature a woman at the helm. Fecund of hair-styles and character developments, Mulgrew's Janeway evolved into one of the most complex and interesting women figures on television. During the show's first season, a common observation about Mulgrew's performance was that it evoked Hepburn.

"I've often been likened to her," says Mulgrew. Lombardo was certainly struck by the uncanny similarities—he recalls being at a friend's house about five years ago, and marveling at Mulgrew's Hepburnesque qualities. "It was at that point that I decided to write the play, inspired by Kate," Lombardo says. It is a tailor-made star piece, written specifically for Mulgrew, shaped for talents and style. "The play would not have been written without Kate," Lombardo says, who lavishly lauds his star. "Kate is astonishing in the role. I am utterly in awe—just to watch her work, create this character from the words on the page."

When asked what drew her to Lombardo's work, Mulgrew unhesitantly and emphatically replies, "The words!" Mulgrew seems rather awed by the gravity of the project herself, calling Lombardo's play "remarkable." She continues: "All one's life one hears about this woman. And now we have this play, using the conceit of this one woman show— the youthful, embattled Hepburn versus the older Hepburn." What fascinates about the juxtaposition between these "two" Hepburns is that each represents a distinctive yet equally powerful version of the Hepburn star power: the Hepburn of the 30s and the Hepburn of her seventieth decade are each stars in their own right. So the challenge for all involved—especially Mulgrew—involves not only having to convince the audience that Hepburn looms before us on stage but that she is recognizably either the Hepburn of 30s films or that of the era of On Golden Pond.

However audacious Lombardo's efforts prove to be, it is almost surprising that no one has attempted to put on a show of this nature—Hepburn's life—before. Hepburn is not only one of the very the last living stars of her rank and caliber, but she is one of the 20th century's most notable personalities.

It's difficult to see how, given the range of vitality of her 30s work, Hepburn could ever have been named box-office poison. This stigma was dealt Hepburn by a powerful movie czar, MGM's Louis B. Mayer. (The same thing happened to Joan Crawford, who also managed to rebound from it.) In the early 30s, Hepburn won an Oscar for the film Morning Glory, about the efforts of an aspiring young actress. But she made much better films than Morning Glory, and she demonstrated a remarkable ability to navigate between comedic and dramatic roles. In the great George Stevens film, Alice Adams, based on the Booth Tarkington novel, Hepburn plays the titular role. Her Alice is a deeply intelligent and just as deeply eccentric, quirky young woman who, due to the relative poverty of her family, has been shunned by the elite of her. A young aristocrat (charmingly played by Fred MacMurray) falls for Alice when he meets her at a dance. But then their romance is sorely tested by the class-consciousness and the family politics so expertly limned by the film. This is one of Hepburn's finest performances—alternately heartbreaking and hilariously funny, altogether tenderly wrought, and a testament to her ability to fuse comedic and dramatic touches. "She plays a wallflower with guts," Mulgrew observes of this Hepburn performance, "unusual, idiosyncratic, very appealing."

The 30s may have ended in the shame of low ticket sales—low enough for her to flee Hollywood briefly—but it provided her with some of her most noteworthy roles. She played Jo unforgettably in George Cukor's classic version of Little Women; she starred with Cary Grant in Philip Barry's sparkling, touching Holiday (anticipating another superb pairing with Grant in another Barry comedy, The Philadelphia Story); she and Grant made screwball-comedy joy out of Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby. She also starred in films notable for their early feminist content, most notably Dorothy Arzner's Christopher Strong, in which she plays an aviator.

As a distinctive actress, Hepburn succeeded instantly, but she also represents the Hollywood New Woman. Fiercely independent and idiosyncratic, with her penchant for wearing pants (deemed so scandalous in her day), Hepburn made it seem impossible to ignore the vitality and strength of strong, capable, dynamic women.

Who better, then, to play a revolutionary woman than another? Mulgrew made television history in 1994 as the first woman Captain in a Star Trek series. "She was a good ol' gal, wasn't she?" says Mulgrew, speaking of Captain Janeway. She was indeed. Playing the Captain of a Federation vessel 70,000 light years away from its Earth home in the Alpha Quadrant, Mulgrew brought heroic stature to the role. Her Janeway is a formidable figure; to quote Molly Haskell on Joan Crawford, "about as wobbly as the Statue of Liberty." Her command style is crisp, direct, intimidating. "Do it!" was her signature catchphrase (paralleling Jean-Luc Picard's "Make it so.")

But she always lets us see, as well, the vulnerability and the burdensome loneliness of command of Captain Janeway as she strives to return Voyager to its rightful surroundings. (This show's wandering theme recalls The Odyssey.) And she infused the character with a raucous, lively good humor that made her marvelously likable, too.

"Voyager" also granted Mulgrew useful experience in aging a character, as she is require to do in Tea. In the series finale, involving a confrontation with the cybernetic monsters the Borg and their Queen, Janeway must match wits not only against these robotic menaces but also against a future version of herself, the seventysomething Admiral Janeway who travels back to Captain Janeway's timeline with new technology and a diabolical scheme in hand.

Mulgrew describes the process this way: "In this remarkable play, we see the scope of her life. Capturing the buoyancy of her youth and then playing the 76 year old Hepburn, slipping into her skin; well, it's organic. It's got to be—and it is—spontaneous." When pressed for details regarding her ability to achieve the illusion of advanced age, the different bodily and vocal languages of the young and the aged Hepburn, Mulgrew, like all very fine actors, responds without specificity but, instead, with metaphor: "It's hard to describe, really; It's like love. You know what the difference is between thinking and knowing you've fallen in love. You just have to feel it, be it."

Mulgrew describes the exhaustive research she has done on Hepburn's life, including reading biographies, Hepburn's autobiography (Me), watching all of her films. "Slowly and mysteriously, you slip quite naturally [into the persona of another being]. You inhabit her."

In Act One, the Hepburn we see, as Mulgrew describes her, "is desperate, vulnerable, yet determined. Hollywood would be very glad not to see her again. But she will triumph." What Mulgrew will convey is the odd, volatile mixture of defeat and indomitable will that marks Hepburn at this point of her life; that she has been wounded yet verges on the point of a triumphant comeback: starring in the theatrical version of The Philadelphia Story and then the Hollywood film version of it, both of which are smashes that not only revivify Hepburn's career but also entrench her as one of the signal stars of her era. "This process," explains Mulgrew, "must be done with dexterity, conviction. I can only convey what she felt." (Incidentally, Mulgrew played Tracy Lord herself on stage in an 80s revival.)

In Act Two, Hepburn will reflect upon her career. When asked about how Tea at Five will depict Hepburn's responses to her own legendary, multifaceted (i.e., filled with highs and lows) relationship with Spenser Tracy, Mulgrew is a bit reticent, cautious about not revealing "some of the surprises of the play." Hepburn's life," Mulgrew says, "is wonderfully complex." And Lombardo, in Mulgrew's passionate view, does justice to this complexity:

"Suffice it to say, this is not a superficial exploration of Hepburn's life. We see this life inside out; we take the journey with her. The audience is part of this play. I will give all that I have but the audience will have to knit it together for themselves. "

Of the nature of Hepburn's relationship with Tracy, Mulgrew assents that it was controversial, and that this element of it adds texture to the play. "We uncover the complexities of this relationship. He was married; he drank; he had women."

Mulgrew's creative work with Lombardo and Tillinger, the director of the play ("quite well-versed in one woman shows," Mulgrew adds), seems quite loving itself. She has nothing but praise for their collaborative energies and felicitous working relationship. When asked if Tillinger has helped her shape this performance, Mulgrew emphatically adds, "Absolutely!" She says of the work they have each done on this play:

"It's a remarkable process, far more rigorous than you'd imagine. It takes enormous energy. total concentration. I mean, you know always that those skates could miss the ice! This process can be so solitary; there's so much danger, and excitement. But—and I want to emphasize this—the intimate relationship I have with my director has been enormously valuable. We have developed a kind of creative shorthand. a language of work and understanding, between us."

Mulgrew has had an ample, rich career, of which "Voyager" and Tea at Five have only been the most recent developments. Her TV credits include the 70s soap Ryan's Hope, the spin-off of "Columbo," "Kate Loves a Mystery," in which a 23 year old Mulgrew starred, and feature films that include A Stranger Is Watching and Throw Momma From the Train. But Mulgrew is also no stranger to theater—she has played Desdemona, Tamora (she was in the Joe Papp Shakespeare Festival production of Titus Andronicus); she has been in Black Comedy and done Orton, Ibsen, Moliere Jon Robin Baitz. "You have to be insane to write a play about a woman like Hepburn," says Lombardo, reflecting on the process of writing Tea at Five. When asked what his special inspiration for working on Hepburn was—for many other stars, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Crawford, and others, have had fascinating lives that would also lend themselves to riveting theater—Lombardo describes being drawn by and connected to "strong, dramatic women" to whom, as a brother with three older sisters, he relates and with whom he feels comfortable.

He describes the special appeal of Hepburn this way: "What I find most fascinating about her is what she did to become who she was and is. For a woman in 1940 to have that kind of power—she'd negotiate with Mayer for the kinds of scripts she wanted; she just never caved in." There is no doubt that in Mulgrew and Hepburn, Lombardo's cup of strong, dramatic women runneth over.

Is there, say, a Broadway future for this show? Lombardo laughs at the familiarity, at this point, of this question. "We'll see. The buzz, the visibility of the project has been phenomenal. But right now, we just want to give the Hartford Stage the best show we can."

One suspects that other stages will be singing with the combined efforts of Tillinger, Lombardo, and two divine and regal stars named Kate.

—By David Greven