Thursday, March 6, 2003

Kate feels comfortable being Kate

Mulgrew stars in Hepburn portrayal

By Mark Kennedy
The Associated Press

Kate Mulgrew
Kate Mulgrew
NEW YORK - Kate Mulgrew is boldly going where no woman has gone before.

Trading in her sci-fi unitard for sensible slacks, the 47-year-old actress who gained fame as a Star Trek captain has been given a new prime directive: Portraying Katharine Hepburn on stage.

In the one-woman play Tea at Five, Mulgrew examines two moments in the life of the four-time Academy Award-winning actress - the first-ever portrayal of Hepburn in a dramatic project. The show, which debuted in Hartford, Conn., last year, opens in New York on Sunday at the Promenade.

"I feel deeply comfortable in her skin," says Mulgrew, whose cheekbones, husky voice and ruddy hair have often been compared to Hepburn's.

"I've actually never felt this way before in my whole life as an actor. She's bigger than me, so I really have to meet her every night, fully."

The two-act play, written by Matthew Lombardo, takes place at the Hepburn estate in Old Saybrook, Conn., where the 95-year-old lives a private life. The play, which takes its title from the Hepburns' habit of afternoon tea, received no family approval.

Act I is set in September 1938, after a 31-year-old Hepburn has been labeled "box-office poison" following a string of flops, including the now-classic Bringing Up Baby.

The second act takes place 45 years later, as Hepburn - wearing a cast following a car accident and betraying the tremors of Parkinson's - reminisces about Spencer Tracy and her brother's suicide.

"The older Kate just came," says Mulgrew. "Certainly, I can see her, I can hear her, I have access to all kinds of documents and film. And the younger girl? I'm still working on her."

Mulgrew, who stumped for husband Tim Hagan when he ran for Ohio governor last year, says she was hardly a fan of Hepburn's before agreeing to do the play.

"I thought her a rather tough Yankee. ... So I came in with my dukes up and when I started to find her, the first thing, and the great ingredient, I found was her vulnerability."

Hepburn's niece Katharine Houghton called the play "trash" in a letter to The Hartford Courant but she praised Mulgrew.

Mulgrew says she understands reluctance to air what some may consider dirty laundry, but insists the play is a loving portrayal.

"If I thought for one second I was going to offend, I wouldn't do it. Her contribution has been too great," she says. "The work is deep. This is not a vanity piece. I'm not doing an imitation of Katharine Hepburn. It's a tribute."

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