Category: Archive

Two for Tea

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Thats what the 48-year-old Irish-American performer, who is originally from Dubuque, Iowa, is doing now, and for the foreseeable future, in the successful off-Broadway production of playwright Matthew Lombardos one-actor play Tea at Five, currently holding forth at the Promenade Theater.
The shows venue will probably have to change after July 13, when the productions tenure at the Promenade runs out. If business continues at its present strength, however, finding a new home for Tea at Five shouldnt present an insurmountable problem.
Over coffee on a recent morning in her large, comfortable Upper West Side apartment, Mulgrew recounted the details of her association with what might be termed the Hepburn Project.
My good friend Nancy Addison, who has since died, was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager with Matthew [Lombardo], and he said, That girl should play Katharine Hepburn,  she said.
Mulgrew, as TV watchers know well, played Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, the money-spinning series created by the late Gene Roddenberry, for fully seven seasons.
The actress was, as has been endlessly reported, the first female commander ever to guide a Star Trek vessel. Apart from helping Mulgrew raise and educate her two sons, Ian and Alec, her science fiction role brought her a 1998 Golden Satellite Award for Best Performance by an actress in a TV series, and a Saturn Award as Best Genre TV actress.
The most potent result of her work as Captain Janeway is probably the link it forged with her performance as Hepburn in a script that didnt even exist when playwright Lombardo was struck by Mulgrews resemblance to the legendary star.
He went home to Miami and wrote the play in three days, and asked Nancy if she would get the manuscript to me, which she did, Mulgrew said.
Three days seems a short time for a writer to come up a complete script, and what Lombardo did was probably a rough draft of what Mulgrew is currently performing at the Promenade. Its been significantly changed, she said, but the concept was there, along with the structure and the polarity.
By polarity the actress was referring to the fact that in the plays first act, Hepburn, age 31 in 1938, is waging a losing battle to get the role of Scarlett OHara in the film version of Gone With the Wind, and in the second act, at age 75 in 1982, she is dickering with Warren Beatty about playing a secondary, but nevertheless significant part, in his projected remake of the classic 1939 weeper, Love Affair.
I realized immediately, Mulgrew said, that it could be an interesting and potentially splendid project if we could bring it to fruition.
The actress and the playwright decided to shop the venture around to a few theaters and see what happened.
Michael Wilson of Hartford Stage was the first one who jumped at it, Mulgrew said. He optioned the play. Then we brought the director, John Tillinger, on board and then we were under way. Its been quite an odyssey. Ive been at this for a year and a half.
Tea at Five debuted in Hartford, Conn., coincidentally Hepburns home town, in January of 2002, and then spent much of the summer of that year at the Cleveland Playhouse. Then came the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., where the show played in August and September of last year.
Mulgrews life was complicated during that period because her husband, Tim Hagan, was running what was ultimately an unsuccessful campaign for governor of Ohio.
I was doing double duty all that time, she said.
Hagan, whom the actress met in Ireland, is, unlike most politicians, not a lawyer.
Hes from Youngstown, Ohio, and hes always been a public servant, including 16 years when he was commissioner of Ohios Cuyahoga County, Mulgrew said. Before that, Democratic chairman. Hes a great friend of the Kennedys, and served on the Robert Kennedy Foundation for years. His great friend Jean Kennedy Smith was then ambassador to Ireland, and he was visiting her there when we met. He took me for a drink in Tralee.
At 57, Hagan is about a decade older than is wife, and the marriage is conducted partly in Ohio and partly in New York.
Tim wants to do something thats both stimulating and rewarding, Mulgrew said, but his spirit is still a political one, I think.
The actress, clearly a compassionate woman, has a balanced philosophical attitude toward her husband and their marriage.
Hes trying very hard to accommodate this marriage, which is not without its difficulties, since his roots are in Ohio, and he has two girls, two young girls, there, said Mulgrew. One of them is 13 and the other one is 16. He himself was one of 14 kids, and hes very close to his family, his mother in particular.
Mulgrew, the oldest girl in a family of eight children, feels certain inherent sympathies with the woman she is portraying in Tea at Five. Both she and Hepburn had lost a sibling at an early age. Two of Mulgrews four sisters have died, the first from a brain tumor at age 14, which she believes changed her forever, just as the suicide of Hepburns brother, while both of them were teenagers, altered her in significant respects.
Whenever death happens close to you, and youre young, it redefines you, she said. Youre too young to understand the grief that hits you, and it shapes you for the rest of your life. You grow up fast, and you cant recover your childhood, and that may be one of the reasons we act, as a way of expressing the inexpressible.
Mulgrew, despite feeling a powerful affinity for Hepburn, had definite fears when it came to portraying an American icon.
If I hadnt been frightened, I dont think Id have been any good, she said. However, I felt that doing it was appropriate.
It required something beyond routine courage to open Tea at Five in Hartford, a place that in many ways still resonates with the force and impact of Hepburns character and personality.
I knew that in Hartford theyd be honest and candid, Mulgrew said. I thought theyd be discerning in their criticism, and blunt. In the end they were marvelous, so once I got that response, I thought, OK. 
Mulgrew decided to return to New York when it became evident that the Star Trek: Voyager: franchise was running out.
My intention was to start a new life doing what I love most, she said. I sold my house in Los Angeles and rented this apartment. That was about three years ago, and what better way start again than with a project like this? Its been fraught, but, conversely, its been grand.
And things should continue to be grand, provided Tea at Five finds a suitable new home when the time arrives.

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