On its way to Broadway in 2012, Ann, an affectionate portrait of the late Texas Governor Ann Richards (1933-2006), officially opened at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on December 21 for an engagement that ends January 15.
Starring Holland Taylor, who also researched and wrote the script, the play’s setting is a college graduation ceremony, where Richards is the commencement speaker. (This kind of set-up seems almost required for one-man or one-woman shows. Thurgood, which also played at the Kennedy Center, had Laurence Fishburne as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall deliver a lecture on a college campus. A lecture is, perhaps, the most believable conceit that can explain why one person on stage talks at an audience for two straight hours.)
Holland Taylor has a long list of distinguished credits on stage, screen, and television, but today she is best known as the acerbic mother/grandmother on CBS-TV’s Two and a Half Men. Known for playing strong (sometimes headstrong) women, Taylor brings all of that attitude and edginess to her portrayal of Ann Richards.
Richards begins by noting that she was not the first female Texas governor. That would have been “Ma” Ferguson, wife of the aptly named “Pa” Ferguson, who was elected in the 1920s after her husband was impeached and sent to prison for selling pardons to convicted criminals. “Ma” Ferguson’s winning campaign slogan was “Two governors for the price of one.”
Taylor’s script does not make the explicit connection, but this episode in Texas history may explain an aspect of Texas law that comes up in a later sequence, when in the second act Richards, who is trying to figure out what to do about the fate of a death-row inmate, complains bitterly that only the state’s parole board can grant a pardon, while the best she can do to prevent the man’s death is to issue a 30-day stay of execution.
Ann’s “commencement speech” traces her life from her childhood in a hamlet near Waco called Lakeview (“where there was no lake to view”) through her marriage and divorce and her early political career, first as a county commissioner, then as a state treasurer, and finally as governor from 1991-95, with a coda regarding her post-statehouse activities.
Along the way the audience is treated to a stream of quips, slightly dirty jokes, shaggy dog stories, and a “day in the life of the governor” when the stage is transformed from a lecture hall into Ann Richards’ office in the state capitol.
Not shy about expressing herself, Ann says “I have a lot of opinions. Can you imagine if I were your mother-in-law? I could fix you.”
Reflecting on her work ethic, which she absorbed from her parents, Ann remembers a slogan of her local civic group: “If we rest, we rust.”
Even when the play takes a darker turn, Ann keeps her sense of humor. In discussing her battle with alcoholism, which hit her hard in her early 40s, just as her political career was about to launch, Ann says she “was like a poster child for functioning alcoholics everywhere,” because she never let her drinking get in the way of her many tasks and commitments.
At the time, she claims, being an openly alcoholic politician was something novel and noteworthy. “Nowadays,” she points out, just about rolling her eyes, “you can’t even get into a primary unless you’ve been to rehab.”
Oddly enough, the play continues for two hours without Richards ever mentioning the names of her two bêtes noires, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush (who defeated her gubernatorial re-election bid in 1994).
Even more amazingly, although the play opens with a “clip” of the 1988 Democratic National Convention speech that made then-state treasurer Ann Richards a national celebrity, Taylor’s script never quotes the snarky line that made Richards famous: “Poor George! He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” That comment alone sent Michael Dukakis’ poll numbers soaring – although that may have been the high point of his ill-fated presidential campaign.
Throughout the play, and especially in the extensive “day in a life” sequence, Taylor’s Richards expresses the political and social values that animated her: concern for equality, racial harmony, gender equity, justice, and a “government that looks like Texas.”
“Life is not fair,” says Richards, in one of many epigrammatic utterings, “but government should be.”
Given the subject, it should come as no surprise that the play has a liberal bias. There’s no hidden agenda, though it was somewhat disconcerting when some in the opening night audience applauded Richards’ mocking of Second Amendment rights. (Ann speculates that her pro-gun control views were what led to her defeat for re-election.)
Despite exhibiting the rough-and-tumble life of the governor, the on-stage Taylor always looks elegant as Richards, from the famous silver beehive (“Molly Ivins said I have Republican hair”) to her businesslike jacket-and-skirt combination. In this, Taylor is ably assisted by costume designer Julie Weiss.
Other aspects of the physical production are noteworthy, as well. Scenic designer Michael Fagin has created a fluid set that benefits from projections (by Zachary Borovay) of long-ago Texas scenes and from the lighting design by Matthew Richards (presumably no relation to the title character).
Benjamin Endsley Klein took on the difficult task of directing an actress in a play of her own creation. Not to suggest that Holland Taylor is herself a diva – I have no evidence of that and suspect that it is not true – but it must be daunting to translate page to stage when the playwright is also the star.
It is clear from this production that Taylor has a great deal of respect for her subject, and also substantial affection. At the risk of committing a cliché, she embraces the role with gusto, radiating both energy and intelligence along the way.
Ann continues at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through January 15, 2012. Ticket prices start at $54. For ticket information, call the Kennedy Center box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or visit www.kennedy-center.org. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.