"I was never particularly drawn to Katharine Hepburn; quite the contrary," notes actress Kate Mulgrew, who is now playing Hepburn in "Tea at Five," a solo show that opened Off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre on March 16.
"I've often been compared to her, vocally and because I look a bit like her," Mulgrew continues, "and I was slightly resentful. I wanted to be an actress in my own right. But when [playwright] Matthew Lombardo sent me the script—he wrote it for me—I thought, as I have only a few times in my life, this is exactly what I have to do."
Mulgrew is perhaps best known as Captain Kathryn "Kathy" Janeway on the syndicated hit, "Star Trek: Voyager." She was the first woman in "Star Trek" lore to lead the starship, a post she held for seven seasons.
Set at Hepburn's Fenwick estate in Old Saybrook, Conn., "Tea at Five" features the famed actress reflecting, at two junctures, on her life, her career, and her family, the last awash in tragedy.
In Act One—the year is 1938—a strapping and driven Hepburn is agonizing over her future, despite her many Broadway appearances and an Oscar under her belt. When the curtain goes up on Act Two, 45 years have passed. The aging superstar—still feisty, yet elegiac—looks back at her glorious career and her ambivalent 28-year love affair with Spencer Tracy.
Mulgrew, who brings Hepburn stunningly to life, is well aware that starring in a bio-drama, especially one about an internationally recognizable figure, is treading mined territory on many fronts. For starters, there's the simple issue of authenticity. Hepburn was—is—notoriously private, and Mulgrew acknowledges that Hepburn never, as an example, would have talked about her relationship with Spencer Tracy to a room full of strangers.
"I suppose it's called theatrical license," says Mulgrew, a 47-year-old Dubuque, Iowa native, who meets with us in her elegant, well-appointed Upper West Side apartment. "No, Katharine Hepburn probably would not divulge her relationship with Spencer Tracy, but we are doing an investigation into her inner life. It's a risk, but it's a risk I was willing to take on two conditions. The play had to be conceived as a tribute, and if it were erroneous or offensive in any way, I would not do it."
Mulgrew, an intense woman with a deep, resonant voice, insists that she is not doing a Hepburn impersonation on stage, her uncanny re-creation of the Hollywood legend notwithstanding. "I'm too old and I'm not interested," she pronounces with a dismissive wave of her hand. Hepburn, she says, was approached like any other dramatic character in a work of fiction, an imaginative figure that needed to be defined and characterized.
"The key ingredient is Hepburn's vulnerability, and from that single emotional state emanates the entire characterization. As I read about Hepburn and then studied her movies, I found it—her vulnerability. And that, not the maverick Yankee with true grit, is what made her truly compelling."
Mulgrew contends that the central event in Hepburn's life—and the one that helped shape Mulgrew's interpretation—was her brother's suicide when Hepburn was 13.
"For the rest of her life, she was never again free of a certain kind of unending grief. At the tender age of 13, she recognized that she had two choices: to be the Spartan arrow that her brother, father, and mother wanted her to be, or to give in to a sorrow that embitters and cripples. She did the former, and in choosing to do something that brave, she revealed herself. It's very complicated and all part of being an actress and difficult to articulate."
Mulgrew should know something about being an actress. She has been at it for almost three decades in TV, film, and theatre (playing, among other roles, Isabella in "Measure for Measure" and the title role in "Hedda Gabler," both at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles).
Nonetheless, playing Katharine Hepburn poses a host of challenges—from the physical to the emotional. Heading the list, not unexpectedly, is the pressure of starring in a solo piece, as well as aging and evolving on stage between the two acts, while maintaining a connective through line.
"My entire day is about Katharine Hepburn," Mulgrew continues. "It's quiet time before and after each performance. The focus required for a solo show is no joke. It's very different from working with an ensemble where there is partnership and levity. My partner is the audience and that's daunting.
"I find Act One especially challenging because, physically, Katharine was the opposite of me," Mulgrew asserts. "She was a top-notch athlete and had the dexterity of a clown and a long, lean body like a violin string. I do not."
That said, Mulgrew sees parallels between her life and Hepburn's.
"I too am very close with my older brother, who is one year older than I am. And although I did not have suicide in my family, I had two sisters who died. And, like Katharine, I believe in the rootedness of family. I know who I am and if I ever forget, my parents remind me quickly. Like Katharine, I am the first girl and the second oldest child of a dominant father figure and a creative, highly intelligent mother figure.
"It's not uncommon for the oldest girl in the second position to do what we do—which is to act. We are very creative, with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, which means we may take it to the limit in the opposite way. Instead of becoming doctors, we become actors.
"I need to be focused and totally immersed. And medicine—although a primitive science—is intriguing. Still, I'd bet that even if I were a young girl today—and now the sky is the limit—I'd have chosen acting. I was always so passionate about acting. It suits me." (Interestingly, Hepburn also toyed with the idea of a career in medicine.)
Learning to be Epic
Mulgrew's father owned and ran an asphalt business; her mother was a painter, and Mulgrew (as noted) had her sights set on an acting career from the outset. At 17, she enrolled at New York University (NYU), and the Stella Adler Conservatory (which is affiliated with NYU), where she studied with Adler.
"Stella Adler changed my life," Mulgrew recalls. "She grew me up, told me what I had to do to be an actress. She told me I had to be epic, to get rid of all the little mediocre strands and make them epic. She told me to be brave. I used to have vodka with her at the Bel Air Hotel; she'd have six little ones in colored shot glasses and caviar. We were great friends. I spoke at her memorial. I loved her."
Looking back at her career, Mulgrew stresses, "I've had a good run of it, especially as I've aged, and, no, I've never suffered from typecasting. I think that's entirely up to the actor. You let yourself get typecast if that's what you want."
Clearly, the two career turning points for Mulgrew were her TV stints, playing Kathryn Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager," and earlier, the role of Mary Ryan on "Ryan's Hope."
"That was my first professional job and I quit NYU in my junior year to take it. I was on that TV program for only a year and a half. But I'm still stopped on the street and recognized as Mary Ryan [and, of course, the steely Janeway]. Now, I'm stopped because people have seen me in 'Tea at Five.'
"My best audiences are the Saturday matinee crowds, with the older women who loved Katharine Hepburn and know everything about her. She defined their generation and they're intelligent and responsive."
Her other large and satisfying audience demographic is homosexuals. "Thank God in heaven for gay men!" she proclaims.
"My toughest audiences are straight men between the ages of 25 and 50. If they don't want to go to the theatre, they should not be made [by their wives] to go to the theatre. Let them watch the football game!"
Not unexpectedly, Mulgrew has been thinking about Hepburn a great deal, wondering if an actress like Hepburn could even exist today or whether she is singularly of her time and place. "The maverick in me—the artist in me—hopes that someone like Hepburn could and will emerge again, but I'm afraid she's one of a kind."
One thing is certain: Hepburn continues to have an appeal. "And that's because she was so damn brave and unique," asserts Mulgrew. "When Americans look at Katharine Hepburn, they are proud to call themselves Yankees. She made them stand up and listen."
Without elaborating on her political views, Mulgrew suggests that Hepburn's vision and sensibility have special application today.
"That's why audiences are coming to the show. They look at her and say, 'That's it!' She had true grit in the best sense of the word." Abruptly, Mulgrew has slipped into her Hepburn persona, her voice crackling in Hepburn's inimitable style. " 'Go back to work. Life goes on.'
"We give up. She never gave up and she never apologized. That was her great expression." Once again, in character, " 'Never complain, never explain. I have a little saying that my mother gave me as a young girl and I love it: 'Listen to the song of life.' "