Photograph courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
☆☆☆ out of four
Ann Richards, you are much missed. Not just because one aches to hear what you’d have to say about Rick Perry’s blundering, or Newt Gingrich’s Tiffany account, or Herman Cain’s personal problems, but because it’s hard to imagine in the current political climate that a female Democrat could ever be elected governor of Texas. Richards, as much a beacon of hope for common sense as she was an outspoken firebrand, amassed an army of loyal followers over the years, none more loyal than Holland Taylor, the Emmy-winning film and television actress (Two and a Half Men, Legally Blonde), who loved Richards so much she felt compelled to write a play about her.
The result is Ann, a blisteringly funny, meandering show that’s notable mostly for how vividly Taylor captures the spirit of her icon. Walking onto the stage with the kind of swagger that evokes W’s cowboy boots rather than the demure heels Taylor wears, she’s so visually similar to Ann Richards that it’s almost alarming. (And for a Philadelphia native, Taylor’s Texas twang ain't bad, either.) Resplendent in a white suit and glittering jewelry, Richards is here to address a graduating class, meaning there are plenty of asides to the audience about how well they scrub up, and whether the jokes she really wants to tell are suitable for such an impressionable crowd.
The problem, of course, is that if anyone had a graduation speaker this garrulous, they’d probably never even make it to the diploma part of the ceremony. Ann is almost two hours long, which is ambitious for a play with essentially no structure. In the first act, Taylor uses the speech narrative to let Richards tell us about her early life—the father who told her she could grow up to be anything she wanted, the husband she married at 19, the alcoholism that once led her to attend a formal party dressed as a tampon. It’s funny, charming stuff, but the images projected onto the wall behind her make it feel like something akin to a giant PowerPoint presentation, more like a lecture (albeit an interesting one) than a piece of theater.
But as the action moves Richards into the governor’s office, where she organizes a weekend with her children as deftly as she counsels Bill Clinton on his potential nominations to the Supreme Court, the pace picks up, and the action onstage feels much more absorbing. In a single afternoon at the office, Richards deals with state business (the Pope and Mother Teresa want her to issue a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row), personal issues (a neighbor calls saying her 76-year-old mother is on the roof cleaning out her gutters), and minor chores (she sews the tassels back onto the Texas state flag in her office). This, Taylor seems to be saying, is what all women should aspire to be: gutsy, smart, multitasking, and brusque yet loving. Taylor captures Richard’s slight stutter as she powers fearlessly through her duties, making one aide cry and bestowing a giant chocolate bar upon another. As Richards herself puts it, she’s a character “as strong as mustard gas.”
If anything, Ann is like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, but one crafted with such obvious affection for its subject that it’s hard not to feel the tenderness radiating from the stage. Taylor’s performance as Richards is quite extraordinary and worth the cost of admission alone, even if the play itself could use a little pruning. But after the much stronger second act, when the lights go down and a portrait of Richards descends from the ceiling, you feel the power and presence of a truly unforgettable character, who lives on through one artist’s determination not to forget her.
Ann is at the Kennedy Center through January 15. Tickets ($54 to $95) are available through the Kennedy Center’s Web site.