Kate Mulgrew plays Katharine Hepburn

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  April 2, 2003 at 7:00 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter

NEW YORK, April 2 (UPI) -- Katharine Hepburn's radiant presence in films and on Broadway is sorely missed, but look-alike actress Kate Mulgrew, the Capt. Kathryn Janeway of the "Star Trek: Voyager" TV series, is doing her best to keep Hepburn's legend alive in the theater in a one-woman show, "Tea at Five," written by Matthew Lombardo.

The show at the Promenade Theater on Upper Broadway is something of a tour-de-force in that it makes audiences almost believe that Hepburn is before them on the stage, not infirm and living in retirement in her Connecticut home at the age of 95. Not every actress could pull this off, but Mulgrew looks enough like Hepburn and has the abundant talent for mimicry that makes her impersonation a near-perfect success.

Granted that Mulgrew has a firmer grasp on the older Hepburn of the second act than she does of the younger Hepburn in the first. But this is more a matter of makeup and her ability to imitate the tremulous effects of Parkinson's disease on Hepburn's aristocratically accented speech and bodily movements. Or perhaps it is because it is the graying Hepburn putting on a courageous face to the world that we remember best.

The show opens in 1938 with the 31-year-old Kate at the Hepburn family's Fenwick estate near Old Saybrook, Conn., lobbying for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," a role she feels born to play and one that would resuscitate her sagging film career. When she loses out to Vivien Leigh, her distaste for Hollywood and its seeming disinterest in her exceptional acting talent is reinforced and voiced in a fierce diatribe.

Never mind that on the same day Hepburn learns she lost the Scarlett role she receives Philip Barry's script for "The Philadelphia Story," the film that would revive her stardom. A storm that would become a hurricane that washes away the Fenwick homestead is picking up steam, and Hepburn's concerns switch to family affairs and memories of her childhood.

The second act is set in the rebuilt Fenwick house in 1983. Hepburn, now 76, walks with a cane as the result of a car accident, turns down an offer from Warren Beatty to do a film, and continues her reminiscences, talking at last about her beloved brother's suicide at the age of 15 and her 27-year affair with married film star Spencer Tracy, the two most important events in her emotional life, not counting an early, unsuccessful marriage to a man she still admires.

Mulgrew's ramblings aren't just those of a woman talking to herself. Her Kate actually addresses the audience most of the time, even to the extent of saying, "I suppose you've been wondering when I was ever going to get around to Spencer Tracy?" Having your audience as a confidant is one way of doing a solo act, but it does tend to keep Hepburn from baring her soul completely.

She seems to be holding back, as she would in polite conversation, on the details of her relations with her strict, demanding father and on her activity-prone, underappreciated mother. She glosses over Tracy's alcoholism and abusive bad temper and her own insecurities, striving always to put a good face on her life in a chronically self-approving manner that went hand-in-hand with a certain haughtiness.

Whether or not we get Hepburn real and whole, Mulgrew puts on a good show, and Hepburn fans should be thankful for the chance to share their favorite actress's living room table where she has tea every afternoon at five. The actress admits that when she was young she didn't much care for Hepburn, thinking her "rather geeky and extraordinarily lonely."

"I thought she came off strident, and I was likened to her so often that I resented her," Mulgrew, 47, said in an interview. "But when I was reading about her to prepare for the play, I discovered the family experiences that shaped her, and it broke my heart. She was driven to succeed like a thoroughbred, but right underneath it was a vulnerability unlike any other star of her day."

John Tillinger's resourceful direction keeps the show's one-actor format from becoming static, and designer Tony Straiges' comfortable New England living room looks lived in but not too chintzy. Jess Goldstein's selection of costumes cashes in on Hepburn's reputation as a clotheshorse for unisex fashion that helped put American women into pants.

Mulgrew wears a custom-made ivory pantsuit in the first act and a Donna Karan beige pants suit in the second, accessorized with blue Capezio sandals and an ivory straw hat very much like the Adrian-designed heart-shaped straw hat Hepburn wore in "Philadelphia Story."

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories