Kathleen Turner is not afraid to speak her mind, as any observer of her lengthy streak of strong female roles can tell you. At the Newseum last Wednesday night, Turner held forth with her trademark brassy wit on her upcoming role in Arena Stage’s production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins, stopping along the way to share some revealing triumphs and tribulations from her lengthy stage and screen career.
In a panel interview moderated by the Newseum’s affable Vice Chairman Shelby Coffey III, Turner and playwright Margaret Engel opened up about their creative process throughout the play’s long journey to Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle. For her part, Turner had long been a fan of Ivins’ writing, crossing paths with the widely syndicated columnist periodically through a confluence of shared beliefs. According to Turner, Ivins’ true strength lay in her use of humor to cut through the political chaff and reach her readers on a deeper level. Turner contended, “If you can make them laugh, then they really begin to listen.” She continued, “And I like to make people laugh.”
Engel, a former Washington Post reporter, remarked that she chose Ivins as the subject of her first play because Ivins was “the best in the [journalism] biz” and her personal “Mark Twain”. She spoke glowingly of the Texas writer’s passion and strong convictions, and of the challenge of selling neophyte audience members on Ivins and her particular brand of journalism.
In many ways, Turner seems an ideal choice to bring Engel’s dramatic vision to the stage. Both Ivins and Turner converted talent and hard work into considerable success in male dominated fields, while nurturing fierce pride and sticking to their guns. Mid-career, Ivins had earned a plum post as Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief at The New York Times, overseeing coverage of nine western states. After disagreements over censorship of her fiery, sometimes provocative style to fit the Times’ more measured aesthetic, Ivins left the “mountaintop of journalism world” for a post at the Dallas Times Herald, where she was allowed to write whatever she wanted.
Turner’s own artistic convictions have grown bolder as she has grown in years and fallen prey to career issues that commonly plague veteran actresses, including onscreen and onstage inflation of age, dwindling roles, and unfair standards of beauty not applied to their male counterparts. After initially declining to transplant her hit production of The Graduate from The West End to Broadway in the early 2000’s, she relented after a particularly distasteful encounter with Broadway’s casting double standards.
As Turner tells it, she signed onto an NYC run largely to prove that just as older actors can still play nuanced, romantic characters, actresses of a certain age don’t all have to play reserved grandmothers and sage elders. Such was her belief in the endeavor that when the wildly successful production was completely snubbed at that year’s Tony Awards, Turner and the producers took out a full page ad taking the awards committee to task in the New York Times.
Beneath the strong willed facade, Turner also has a tender side. She remembers clearly her agreement to hug Danny DeVito and Michael Douglas once every day while shooting the intense marriage drama/comedy “The War of the Roses,” to preserve the productive friendships that began with the adventure film “Romancing the Stone” in 1984. She also recalls a poignant moment during the filming of “Peggy Sue Got Married,” when her character speaks to her deceased grandmother by telephone. Turner remembers picking up the telephone for the first time and feeling a pang of longing to speak with her own father, who had passed away years before.
Turner’s unshakable conviction and emotional reserves should aid her in stepping smoothly into the boots of a tough-as-nails political columnist. When asked about her process for creating the character of Molly Ivins, Turner remarked that aside from occasional past reading, she did no outside research – as is her normal custom. Turner’s own acting philosophy states that all the information she needs for the character should be on the page. As such, she constructed her persona organically through the rehearsal process, trusting Engel’s extensive legwork to nail the small details of Ivins’ life and writings.
Aside from a quick video preview of several key scenes, the interview was light on juicy production details, mainly staying in the realm of abstract creative process. However, Turner’s heralded role as Martha in the 2005 Broadway remounting of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? offers some preview into her upcoming performance.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins
Closing date: Oct 28, 2012
In the production of Woolf, Turner deftly balanced conflicting strains of dark comedy, tragedy, eroticism, and brutality, leading Ben Brantley to imply that she had created the definitive portrait of Martha, even surpassing Uta Hagen in the original Tony-winning production. At the Newseum, Turner remarked at the how her main goal with Woolf was to rediscover the innate humor of Albee’s script. She lamented that many of the play’s vital laughs were buried beneath “two drunks screaming at each other” in the original Broadway production and the 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Judging from her nuanced performance history and from reviews of Red Hot Patriot since it debuted in 2010, Turner has all the tools to dip below the surface of Ivins’ spicy, populist rhetoric and allow audiences to get “under her skin and learn to care about her”, in accordance with Engel’s desires for the play. Turner has the chops to juggle Ivins’ biting humor and serious political dialogue and the credentials to get people to sit down and listen.
When asked about their plans for the show beyond Arena Stage, Turner remained largely mum on future engagements. According to Engel, theaters around the country are clamoring for the show, but they would have to “get on Kathleen’s dance card first”.
For her part, Turner seems content to focus on her immediate challenge of realizing Engel’s vision of the sharp-tongued, “Six foot tall, red haired Texan” for Washington audiences. If the video excerpts and the advance praise are any indication, audiences should be in for a treat when Turner, clad in bright red cowboy boots, struts across the stage of the Kogod Cradle on opening night this Thursday.