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Mulgrew is perfect in role of Hepburn

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

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

"I feel deeply comfortable in her skin," says Mulgrew, whose own high 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, directed by John Tillinger and written by Matthew Lombardo, takes place at the Hepburn family estate in Old Saybrook, Conn., where the 95-year-old actress currently lives a very private life. The play 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 seven flops, including later-considered classics like "Bringing Up Baby" and "Holiday."

The second act takes place 45 years later, as a 76-year-old Hepburn — wearing a leg cast following a car accident and betraying the tremors of Parkinson's — reminisces about her affair with Spencer Tracy and the suicide of her beloved older brother, Tom.

"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 says she was hardly a fan of Hepburn's before agreeing to do the play, although something immediately jumped out at her after she began delving into the actress' life.

"I thought her a rather tough Yankee. The stories that I heard were very mixed about her behavior and her persona. 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."

Some members of the Hepburn clan haven't been impressed. Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton, called the play "trash" in a letter to The Hartford Courant last year, although she praised Mulgrew's performance.

"We think Kate Mulgrew is an awfully good actress," Houghton wrote, "and just wished she had better material to perform and material which she could act and not just have to mimic."

Mulgrew says she understands the clan's reluctance to air what some may consider Hepburn's dirty laundry, but she insists the play is a loving portrayal of the screen icon.

"If I thought for one second I was going to offend, I wouldn't do it. Her contribution has been too great. I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole," 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."

The play, which takes its title from the Hepburn family's habit of sitting down for afternoon tea at precisely 5 p.m., made its debut last year in Hartford, Conn., and has made stops in Boston and Cleveland.

Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Mulgrew studied acting in New York City with Stella Adler and was still in school when she simultaneously won the part of Mary Ryan on the TV series "Ryan's Hope" and the role of Emily in an American Shakespeare Festival production of "Our Town."

Other TV work includes the lead role in the series "Mrs. Columbo" — later known as "Kate Loves a Mystery" — and appearances in films like "Throw Mama From the Train," "A Stranger Is Watching" and "Star Trek: Nemesis." Her stage credits include "Hedda Gabler" and "Measure for Measure" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and a Broadway debut in Peter Shaffer's "Black Comedy."

Mulgrew got the script for "Tea at Five" while ending her seven-year stint as Capt. Kathryn Janeway, the first female to guide a federation star ship on "Star Trek: Voyager."

Despite the series' often stilted dialogue, alien-heavy plots and technobabble, Mulgrew carved out a memorable character, a woman struggling to retain her femininity under the weight of command.

"When I was doing 'Voyager,' my goal was, 'When this is finished, I'm going to find out if I can still act deeply.' Television is strangely safe. It's just you and the camera," she says. "Now, I get to let go."

Lombardo, the playwright, switched on "Voyager" one night and although he didn't much care for it — "I watched it five minutes and I had a migraine" — he immediately recognized Mulgrew's potential.

"I said, ' . . . she looks like Katharine Hepburn!' Even her mannerisms and her voice, her inflections, really reminded me," Lombardo recalls. "I said, 'She would be terrific in a play about Hepburn.' "

Though he'd never seen Mulgrew perform on stage, much less actually met the actress, Lombardo began researching Hepburn's life with the aim of persuading the starship captain to helm the production.

"You can tell the classically trained from the TV trained — there's just a way they carry themselves. You can instantly tell who has the chops and who doesn't," he says.

By the time her TV show wrapped, Mulgrew says she was more than ready to give up exploring outer space for inner space.

"I said to myself, 'After seven and a half years of hard work, what have I not done that I'd like to try? What do I have to lose? My ego? It's been done. I've lived it all.' "