Wit, wisdom, and class are all on display through the southern, Texas charm and steely resolve of the late Ann Richards at Arena Stage.
As portrayed by stage and screen veteran Jayne Atkinson in Holland Taylor’s sharp and funny tribute to the Texas icon – housewife, local politician, governor, and maven – Ann is a marvelous way to spend time on a hot, summer evening. This is not documentary-theatre, but a theatrical portrait of the one-term Democratic governor of Texas that gives insight as to what made her the force of nature she grew to be.
After fashioning a one-person play for herself that passed through Washington on it’s way to Broadway acclaim, actress Taylor has passed along the mane of white hair – courtesy of Paul Huntley’s masterful wigs – to other actresses ready to step into Richards’ natty suit.
In a co-production with Dallas Theater Center, Arena Stage has brought in director Kristen Van Ginhoven’s interpretation of the love letter to the political maverick with an iron backbone and a heart of gold. Originator Taylor need not worry about Gov. Ann, for she is in expert hands as played by Jayne Atkinson, a Broadway veteran whom many will recognize from television appearances on “24,” “Criminal Minds,” and the Netflix series “House of Cards,” to name but a few.
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While not attempting to impersonate Richards, Atkinson inhabits the character with ease. Throughout the performance, Atkison embodied all the qualities of Ann Richards which the playwright captured: elegance, warmth, intelligence, abundant humor, and no-nonsense approach to her life and work.
Richards became a political animal in a man’s world – specifically Texas state politics in the 1980s and 90s. “Texas politics is a contact sport,” she shares with the audience, only slightly joking. Like fellow Texan congresswoman Barbara Jordan, or Hillary Clinton, or many of the current women in elected office, Richards had to prove that not only could she do the work of a man but, as she famously quoted at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, like Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire “just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Ann gives us several smaller portraits of Richards over the course of the play, all brilliant chosen by the playwright, and seamlessly paced by director Kristen Van Ginhoven. Beginning with a commencement speech at an imagined Texas university, we see Richards the keynote speaker, armed with all her charms and hilariously bawdy stories at the ready.
Ann closes August 11, 2019 at Arena Stage. Details and tickets
This is where she also lays out her background story in a compelling way. About halfway through, Richards gives us a glimpse of the governor, sliding into her well-appointed office, armed with one of her most powerful allies and weapons: the telephone. The slice of life is as exhausting as it is enlightening and highly entertaining; she speaks to a veritable who’s who, including ally and friend President Bill Clinton. Special mention should be given to actress Julie White for her inspired participation as the voice of Nancy, Richards’ unseen but ever present assistant. Atkinson handles the exchanges with Nancy with impeccable timing and skill. In fact, Atkinson, has her best moments in the governor’s office as she handles subordinates, supporters, family members and a to-do list as big as Texas.
The final moments of the play show Richards after she lost her gubernatorial reelection bid to George W. Bush: the consultant, pundit and sage. Sadly, cancer took her from the world in 2006, but her impact is still felt in political circles in Texas and beyond.
All the nuances of Richards’ character come together in Ann, a rich, engaging portrait of an admirable woman, who made her mark not only on Texas, but as a maverick of 20th Century politics. She certainly gets my vote.
Ann by Holland Taylor . Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven . Featuring: Jayne Atkinson . Set Design by Julianna Von Haubrich . Costume design by Jess Goldstein . Lighting design by Andi Lyons . Sound design by M.L. Dogg . Stage manager Anna Baranski . Co-produced by Arena Stage and Dallas Theater Center . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.