a theatre, film & pop culture review
It’s not every day you come across an old gal with a cotton-candy cloud of white hair, sporting a Barbara Bush power-skirt suit, who loudly and openly cracks wise about her alcoholism and liberalism in one of the most conservative states in the nation. It’s even more remarkable that said feminist Democrat, after winning folks over with her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, in which she strongly criticized President Reagan while playfully ribbing Vice President Bush’s silver-spoon inflected Texan drawl, managed to become governor of the great state of Texas from 1990 until 1994.
And if Ann Richards can be the governor of Texas, why not also the star of a Broadway show? She’s got an absorbing Depression-era upbringing, salty sense of humor, and more than enough chutzpah and charm to fill the entire breadth of the Vivian Beaumont, especially as portrayed so devotedly by Holland Taylor. Taylor has it all down: the presidential pearls, the brutal and brilliant comic timing, and the warmth of a thousand suns. Does Ann, a one-woman show, really need such a large playing space? No, not nearly, but Holland’s intimate chatter and lively storytelling makes it feel as though you’re sitting by a fireplace with a cuppa tea and a dear old friend.
That doesn’t mean that Michael Fagin’s vast and rather chillingly spare set doesn’t try its best to remind us of the grandness of the locale (i.e. Lincoln Center) — and it also doesn’t imply that the material isn’t without problems. In her Author’s Note — because yes, our star is also our playwright — Taylor gushes that she considers Richards now “as a friend I know pretty well, and love.” And you can tell. The first half of Ann consists of an imagined and hagiographic commencement speech in which the one-time governor regales the graduating class with extended, indulgent tales of her childhood and beyond (the meandering direction is courtesy of Benjamin Endsley Klein. Dramaturgically-speaking, no graduation speech would ever go on for so long or have so little to do with the actual students, but thankfully, the lesser-contrived second act moves us into the governor’s office where we delightedly witness her day-to-day activities and interactions with her feisty secretary Nancy Kohler (voiced by Julie White). There’s many a joke at Bill Clinton’s expense — he and Richards were friends (and he and Hillary were in attendance the night I saw the show, seemingly enjoying themselves) — and lots of talk about topics ranging from the death penalty (against) and Thanksgiving pies (for, decidedly).
Ann isn’t pure docudrama, clearly, but Taylor has taken pains to remain true to her muse, and more than a chunk of dialogue came straight from the horse’s mouth. When a performer-writer adores and acts the heck out of a role as much and as well as Taylor does, you can’t help but fall a little bit in love too (even if you wish at least one of those ten endings reached the cutting room floor). When a super-engaging talent like Taylor is on tap, one can deal — and deal happily — with a bit of bumpy dramaturgy and lots of loving admiration.