Like a well-made vodka punch, Kate Robards’ well-made story sneaks up on you. It starts out as a lighthearted account of how she (like Horatio Alger!) overcame her impoverished roots by marrying rich, and ends up as a discomforting meditation on the relationship between money and self-image. Particularly now, as we agonize over issues of money and class and race, her story packs an unexpected wallop.
She prances onto the stage, extending her hand so that we can see the chunk of ice on her ring finger. “I’m rich!” she announces gleefully, and we understand immediately that by rich she doesn’t mean rich by the standards of her East Texas hometown (i.e., you own a funeral home, and you have a swimming pool in your back yard). She means rich rich rich, in that you have a personal wealth manager who offers to look at your portfolio. (“Do you mean my writing portfolio or my acting portfolio?” Kate asks.)
Robards grew up poor, but the principal problem wasn’t just being poor, it was what people thought of her, being poor. “This is just our junk house,” the teenage Robards explains to the funeral-home-rich woman who is driving her home. Her other house is a two-story brick home with a swimming pool, she explains, just like the home of her driver.
Her mother is a hardworking woman whose husband was dead drunk most of the time, and then just dead. Robards loves her but hates the way they live; and excoriates her for not being like their neighbor, who slept with the roofer in order to get her roof repaired. She resolves to leave her poverty-drunk hometown, and live in the high style.
Ain’t That Rich
Written and performed by Kate Robards
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In the fullness of time she meets and falls in love with Josh, a first-year law student who lives over an auto body shop and turns out to have so much money that you never talk about it. Josh and his family are unselfconscious about money, but it’s all Kate can think about. She’s certain that his family will throw up a protective wall against her as soon as she meets them. They don’t. When they offer to pay for the wedding, she thinks that the wedding cost could buy a house for her mom, or do good in Darfur. Then she approves the flower arrangements.
Robards’ tone is bright, but not flippant. She is in the confessional, and knows it. When she takes on other characters — her mother, her brother, Josh, Josh’s mother — she imbues them with dignity and gravity. (There are a few minor comic characters). When she talks about herself, it is with a sort of rueful humor, and with humility. She never sounds a false note, and the production is aided by a spot-on sound design.
At every point of her monologue, she brings awareness to the way that we define ourselves, for good or ill, by the amount of money we have. For years she dreaded going out to drink with her friends, for fear she could not pay her part of the bill; now she can buy drinks for all, and thinks of herself as grand.
Her final moment, in which she compares her life to that of her alcoholic brother, is a meditation on how she caught breaks, from police and other authorities, that he didn’t, because she was an attractive young woman (Robards is extremely attractive, in a quintessentially American way) and he was a rough-looking young man with a lot of tats. It sounds remarkably like the comparison we frequently hear between the experience of young white folks and young African-American folks, and suggests that we have problems with our collective judgment that run even deeper than racism.
Ain’t that Rich . Written and performed by Kate Robards. Directed by Kieran King . Sound design by James Slater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.