Depending on what generation one belongs to, the mention of Kathleen Turner probably brings to mind one of three roles: adulteress Matty Walker in Body Heat, the impossibly curvy Jessica Rabbit (“I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way”), or Charles Bing, a.k.a. Helena Handbasket, Chandler’s transvestite father in Friends.
It says a lot about an actress when she can exude as much gravitas playing a redheaded cartoon character as she can a man in drag, and in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, playing through October 28 at Arena Stage, Turner is no less memorable. Laryngitis-throaty, she’s a commanding presence in a denim shirt and a pair of red cowboy boots, her smile as acid-sweet as the honeyed barbs she clangs out on a vintage typewriter.
As the play opens, Turner sits behind a desk, her feet propped up on the table. “I’m writin’,” she says, Texan drawl a little faulty at first. “This is what writin’ looks like.” Ivins, who died in 2007, was one of America’s most beloved columnists, known as much for her folksy honesty as for the pun-laden jabs she aimed at idiots (and Republicans). This, after all, was the writer who first named George W. Bush “Shrub.”
The play, crafted by former Washington Post reporter Margaret Engel and her sister, fellow reporter Allison, re-creates Ivins through her own words, placing her in some kind of eternal newsroom purgatory (the bare-bones set, which features desks piled high on top of each other, is by John Arnone). Alone, with the exception of a silent copy boy she repeatedly pleads for coffee, Turner recalls chapters of Ivins’s history, from her experiences as a six-foot-tall debutante “with red hair and freckles” to the cancer that eventually claimed her life.
The show’s success is utterly dependent on Turner, and she carries it remarkably well, veiling her own instantly recognizable persona behind Ivins’s bullish swagger. Archival photographs of both Ivins and Turner in character are projected behind her, as well as images of others—including Shrub himself, whose arrival as a secondary character of sorts summons an audible hush from the audience, and a wince from Turner. If the atmosphere up till that point has been positively jovial, suddenly a cloud descends. “Jokes keep outrage alive,” the character says. “But maybe they also keep it at arm’s length.”
Much like Ivins herself, this show offers no pretense of neutrality, and the writer’s fury about certain things (the Iraq war, racism, misogyny) feels palpable. And yet Turner’s performance is at its most powerful when the character puts anger aside and reflects on her own failings. “Alcohol may lead nowhere,” she says, gaze fixed on an unknown point, “but it sure is the scenic route.” Turner has had her own widely publicized issues with drinking in the past, and the moment feels deeply charged.
In terms of structure, Red Hot Patriot is similar to another one-woman show about a lamented and much-missed Texas icon, Holland Taylor’s Ann, which brought Ann Richards’s one-liners to the Kennedy Center last year. Directed by David Esbjornson, Turner’s performance is more powerfully felt in Arena’s intimate Kogod Cradle space, where the warmth of the environment allows for a much more personal experience. And while the actress has plenty to work with from Ivins’s own archives—including spectacular lines about Texas being a “harmless perversion” and reminiscences about a debutante ball or “some other virgin sacrifice”—her gutsy, nuanced performance is what makes this show a true tour de force even the most jaded commentator could be proud of.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins is at Arena Stage through October 28. Running time is about 80 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Arena’s website.