To see and hear Kathleen Turner channel the words and wit of Molly Ivins is to be reminded that theatre can be like church. You need to go to get nudged into living more truthfully and stay fighting the good fight, maybe even to get an occasional, well-deserved dope slap.
Turner is in good form. Those long legs still look like they could wrap around a man and fulfill some great Hollywood fantasies. Those cheekbones are still high and fabulous, and the voice remains sultry-low, styled for the role in a Texas drawl. She is perfectly cast as the beer and Marlboro gal, the famous and, some would say infamous, outspoken, liberal journalist. She’s the real thing right down to her red hot cowgirl boots.
A one-woman show takes a special kind of performance, one that blends an emotional journey with a kind of virtuoso dazzle. David Ebjornsen, who directed Turner, provides the journey, and together they even manage to allow the mention of Ivins’ alcoholism to play a dangerous, double-edged resonance. Ivins’ patter provides the dazzle. Playwrights Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, both steeped in the world of journalism, have selected well from the rich material of Ivins’ life, and they have kept the script trimmed to just the right length to keep it razor sharp and funny.
The premise of such a script is always tricky to my mind. (Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein does work for me as Stein was a shameless exhibitionist and sought out opportunities to attract people around her to feed her ego. The Belle of Amherst has never worked for me as nothing I ever researched about the poet would suggest she would invite a few hundred people in for tea and then steer the conversation to herself and her writings.) Luckily, in Red Hot Patriot, we have a woman who not only loved to talk but was passionate to make people come to their senses and fight what Ivins saw as political mendacity and social injustice. And she did it by making people laugh then opening up their ears to hear some unadulterated truth. (Would the candidates of today do the same.)
We learn a lot about the life of this complicated woman. The piece begins with Ivins writing a kind of obit to her father that she bangs out on the manual typewriter, “My dad is one of the toughest sons of bitches God ever made.” Hers was a fighting family, and the very lack of warmth and compassion for their overly smart but odd daughter made her sharpen her smarts all the more to be ready in any fight to give as good as she got.
Ivins went to Smith College, spoke three languages, and made a career in journalism when newsrooms were still the provenance of men. She worked her way across America working in journalism from small town papers to a stint with the New York Times and as an oversees correspondent living in Paris. It seems, though, that her favorite job was at the Observer, the only independent political newspaper in the state of Texas. She cries with the voice of a take-to-the-streets believer, “We had a voice!”
Many misfortunes dogged her beyond her contentious family life. Two boyfriends of the young Ivins were killed, one in Vietnam, a war that shaped her political views and gave her a lifelong hatred of the misguided warmongering our country has engaged in. Everything, it seems, fueled both her socio-political rage and her wit.
Her family members, friends, and political foes flash on a screen behind her. Many are faces we recognize. All are fodder for her wicked, dart-like observations. She lets out an expletive when George W appears on the screen. It was Ivins who dubbed him “Shrub.”
Indeed, the woman loved to skewer politicians, and she could be devastatingly cruel, so that one can’t help but wince despite the laughter. Of one politician she said, “If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.” But often she just reports and lets the fellows hang themselves with their own bad grammar or mis-spoke flubs.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW Washington, DC
Closing date: Oct 28, 2012
1 hr, 40 minutes with no intermission
Some performances sold out
Ivins was also a brave woman, making the macabre and her own personal loss a public fight, as she did coming through one of three surgeries for breast cancer. She fought at the State House to get funding for cancer research by speaking to the powerful, “Gentlemen, we’re losing tits here.” Turner crafts a moment both wry and poignant at the same time.
But it’s her snappy patter that carries the show, and Turner takes great relish in entertaining us with Ivins stories. She shows us deliciously how Ivins pounced on the outrageous phrase and pushed the envelope. She would more than once push the envelope a little too far, as when she talked about a “gang pluck” in a story about chicken farming.
What’s pretty amazing is that Turner can do it with such simple means. The set by John Arnone would suggest a kind of old journalists’ graveyard. Old metal desks piled up across the back of the stage. One desk, hers, still functions as such, graced only by an oversized manual typewriter and an armadillo.
I called it a one-woman show, but there is the small but devoted nerdy assistant who marches in periodically stony-faced and pulls the bulletin off the AP press machine, delivers it, then marches out again. The assistant is everything Ivins is not: shrunken in form, sobered in brain, and dutifully reliable. Just by her withering glances, Turner lets us know what her character thinks of that. Played by Nicholas Yenson, the young man’s entrances provide a kind of punctuation, and well-deserved breathing breaks for Ms. Turner.
Let’s face it, political lampooning is the kind of thing Washington audiences love, and Red Hot Patriot is a well-calculated show for the time leading up to this election. If you’re tired of the campaign ads and the endless spin, and you want a fresh, sock-it-to-‘em dose of reality, look no farther than good golly Miss Molly.
Just know, Ivins and company would love it if it got us off our duffs and turned our cheers into votes.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, Written by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, directed by David Esjornsen, produced by Arena Stage.
Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
Lisa Troshinsky . Washington Diplomat
Gwendolyn Glenn . ExploreHoward
Louise Levathes . Berkshire Review
Barbara Wells . Hill Rag
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
Rachel Eisley . BrightestYoungThings
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Genie Baskir . ShowBizRadio
Joanna Castle Miller . WeLoveDC
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheater Arts