Twenty years ago, actress Kate Mulgrew was no fan of being likened to Katharine Hepburn.
Aching to be an actress in her own right, Mulgrew despised the Hepburn comparisons critics drew in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, the vocal and physical resemblance irritated her. Today, she thrives on them.
Mulgrew portrays two versions of Hepburn in the one-woman play Tea at Five at the Hippodrome Tuesday through Jan. 23. The first is a 31-year-old Hepburn, whose series of duds led critics to declare her "box office poison." The second is a 76-year-old Hepburn, far more reflective and self-deprecating. Each role poses its own set of challenges - especially because of Hepburn's legendary status and penchant for privacy in her personal life.
"It's a difficult thing, putting a life on a stage for everybody to see - particularly a life that was so private," Mulgrew said. "That was the key to much of her success: her ability to guard herself and to guard aspects of her personal life."
In research, Mulgrew pored over books and articles about Hepburn. She read about every aspect of Hepburn's life, from the movie studios she worked for to the men she loved. She watched and re-watched Hepburn's films.
"Everybody wants to know what makes an icon tick," Mulgrew said. "Particularly a woman of her stripe, because we haven't seen too many, have we? You don't see them. So what was it? What was her particular majesty all about?"
It took Mulgrew months to go through all of the available material. In the first few months of rehearsal, when she wasn't on stage, she was researching. She drew from their shared experiences: Hepburn lost a younger brother, Mulgrew lost two sisters (one in infancy, one to a brain tumor at age 12). Now, after nearly three years of touring, the work continues. Every piece of information she gets that is remotely new is like a diamond in the rough, she said.
Because Tea at Five is a one-woman play, Mulgrew's need for total submersion into character is magnified.
"When you're alone on the stage - and this is a very isolative piece - you really never stop working," she said. "There's really no downtime. That's part fear and part necessity. And so the work just continued, and it does continue to this day. That never ends."
The result is a combination of the historic Hepburn and Mulgrew's interpretation in a search for truth. To be effective, Mulgrew had to unearth the pleasant and sour aspects that shaped Hepburn's life. It is a matter of portraying the character honestly, she says; if not, the audience picks up on it immediately.
"If there's one thing I've learned about the audience - and I don't care what venue it is, and I don't care what city it is - they're discerning, and they're smart," Mulgrew said. "It's almost as if they have a sixth sense about the truth of the piece."
As the only actor, Mulgrew is responsible for an entire audience. Before every performance, she has to muster enough energy and focus to face a crowd by herself.
"Mostly, it's like climbing a mountain," she said. "A mountain that I love to climb, I'm familiar with it, but it is nonetheless a mountain and has its natural dangers and challenges to be faced nightly."
Once the curtain falls on the first act, she has a brief intermission to jump 45 years in Hepburn's life. Every second of that time is used in laser-light concentration, she said, even while she is undergoing a brief physical transformation and costume change.
To prepare, Mulgrew said she draws on the discipline she learned while playing Captain Janeway on the television series Star Trek: Voyager.
"After seven years in a series, I thought it was crucial that I get back to the stage, to see if I could still act in front of an audience, which is how I was trained, which is what I love and which is how I measure good acting," she said.
The past couple of decades have turned Mulgrew from an aspiring actress who wanted nothing to do with Hepburn to a veteran actress who becomes Hepburn. In three years, Mulgrew said her relationship with the character has softened and deepened.
"There's a tenderness now, and there's a confidence to her that probably initially wasn't yet in place," she said. "It's not Mamma Mia! It's not a 2 1/2 -hour joyride. It's a very intimate conversation, and a very emotional journey."
"Tea at Five" runs Tuesday through Jan. 23 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Show times vary. Tickets are $29-$84; call 410-547-SEAT or visit www.france-merrick pac.com.
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