Bringing Up Kate

Mulgrew's Hepburn reveals the power and vulnerability of two extraordinary actresses

During her seven-year tenure as Kathryn Janeway, captain of the starship U.S.S. Voyager on Star Trek: Voyager, actor Kate Mulgrew was spirited and tough. She had to be: Leading a disgruntled crew back to Earth from the far reaches of the uncharted Delta Quadrant was a task of truly Vulcanic proportions. At the same time, there was great warmth in Mulgrew's portrayal. As the only female to have helmed a Star Trek vessel in the franchise's 39-year history, Mulgrew once commented on her character's unique complexity: "Beneath Capt. Janeway's extraordinary control runs a very deep vein of vulnerability and sensitivity. She is the quintessential woman of the future -- both commanding and discerning."

It is these exact same qualities that Mulgrew now brings to the role of Katharine Hepburn in Matthew Lombardo's play Tea at Five. Lombardo wrote his solo show about the four-time Oscar-winning screen goddess with Mulgrew in mind, having been inspired by her turn in an episode of Voyager. It's easy to see why Mulgrew would be a natural choice to personify the star of The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, and On Golden Pond. Beyond the no-nonsense command of her performance in Star Trek, which possesses the "devil may care" attitude of many of Hepburn's roles, Mulgrew, with her haughty cheekbones and wavy auburn hair, resembles Hepburn, too.

When actors play real-life icons, it's tempting to fret over the accuracy of their portrayals, as if an actor's job is the same as that of a look-alike hired to imitate Tom Jones at a bachelorette party. Of course, there's plenty of attention paid to Hepburn's characteristics in Mulgrew's performance. She's nailed the Hepburn stride and restless, jaunty physicality -- the kind that has Mulgrew delivering lines astride a couch arm one moment and flat on her back on the rug the next. Then there's the famous Hepburn purr. Part cockney twang, part East Coast drawl -- the words articulated at times as if through a mouth full of marbles and at others through a megaphone -- Mulgrew inhabits the distinct traits of the star's voice with a natural ease that makes the name "Hepburn" sound as if it was always meant to be pronounced "HEP-bon."

Kate Mulgrew as the legendary Katharine Hepburn in 
Tea at Five, reflecting on a life in show 
business.
Carol Rosegg
Kate Mulgrew as the legendary Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five, reflecting on a life in show business.

Mulgrew's acting embodies the idea that "life is in the details." But the true classiness of the actor's performance has little to do with the extent to which she imitates the physical qualities of the screen icon. It's in the way she conveys the sadness, humor, and bravura of Hepburn's story as told through Lombardo's intelligent text.

Set on the Hepburn Estate in Connecticut, the play is divided into two parts. The first half features Hepburn circa 1938, "all washed up" at 31 in the wake of a string of Hollywood flops, slander from the media, and the end of a turbulent love affair with airplane tycoon Howard Hughes. Dressed in the hallmark shirt and slacks, Mulgrew potters about the chintzy furnishings of Hepburn's parents' living room, partaking, in observance of a family ritual, of "tea at 5," and casually riffing -- as any diva worth her diamonds must -- on the engrossing topic of Ms. Hepburn. Enraged at being dubbed "Katharine of Arrogance" by the press and "Box Office Poison" by exhibitor Harry Brandt, and threatening to send her agent packing if he doesn't land her the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, she doesn't even notice the storm raging outside. "Vivien WHO?" she yells down the phone when she finds out that someone else -- "an unknown" no less -- has stolen the part that she says she was "born" to play.

In some ways, it's hard not to compare Mulgrew's gritty, ever so slightly frumpy Hepburn with Cate Blanchett's evidently more glossy and luminescent portrayal of the character in Martin Scorsese's recent film The Aviator. But any temptation to do this evaporates after the intermission. As the lights go up on the second act, Mulgrew is standing with her back to the audience, staring into the fireplace. When she turns around, remarkable changes have taken place. Gray-haired, and hobbling about with her right foot in a cast following a car accident, Hepburn is 76 and feisty as ever.

The second half of the play, which takes place in the same location in 1983 -- the glory days following the release of Hepburn's Oscar-winning performance as Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond -- has all the energy of the first half of the play and plumbs greater psychological depths. Whether flirting on the phone with Warren Beatty (the actor eventually succeeded in persuading Hepburn to act alongside him and Annette Bening in the 1994 movie Love Affair) or recounting anecdotes about living next door to composer Stephen Sondheim, who "doesn't play the piano -- he abuses it," Mulgrew's Hepburn is a vivacious mind encased in a faltering body.

Indeed, it is the physical side of Mulgrew's performance that propels Act 2 with its candid accounts of Hepburn's beloved brother Tom's suicide at the age of 15, her decision not to have children, and the ups and downs of her 27-year relationship with actor Spencer Tracy. In her later years, Hepburn suffered from what many commentators took to be Parkinson's disease. (The actress would claim in the 1993 TV documentary Katharine Hepburn: All About Me that, despite suffering from a "shaking head," she didn't have Parkinson's.) Mulgrew's depiction of Hepburn's affliction -- whatever it was -- is vivid enough to send shock waves through the audience, without splattering us with molten rock. There's also gentle humor in the character's physical decrepitude. Instead of grabbing the phone off the hook and barking into the receiver as she did in Act 1, the elderly Hepburn of Act 2 has quite a job simply deciphering the phone numbers in her address book thanks to her poor eyesight and twitching head.

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