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Theater Review: “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” at Arena Stage

Kathleen Turner oozes charisma in this beguiling production.

Kathleen Turner in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Photograph by Mark Garvin.

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

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

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.