Ann Richards portrayal aims for Broadway

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Michael Toscano

The Kennedy Center is gambling with its production of Ann, the one-woman show about the late Texas governor, Ann Richards.

Gambling, first, that fading memories of the outspoken Richards will attract enough folks to make an anticipated spring opening on Broadway feasible. And gambling, second, that a one-woman show will have the drawing power to sustain a run.

If memory of the late Ann Richards alone won’t fill seats, perhaps the vivacious and moving performance from star and playwright Holland Taylor will. Taylor turns in a marvelously nuanced and effective performance that is thoroughly captivating, even if one has never heard of Ann Richards.

And if the show attracts some of the people who do remember, and were drawn to, that remarkable woman, then maybe this undertaking will succeed.

The road to becoming governor

Ann Richards started out as Dorothy Ann Willis, born to modest circumstances in the barren stretches of Texas near Waco in 1933. But she got herself through college, married and raised a family, and then immersed herself in politics.

She burst onto the national scene in 1988 while serving as a strikingly successful Texas State Treasurer. That summer, she delivered a colorful and powerful keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to run against Vice President George H.W. Bush for president.

It was a strong speech, remembered for her gentle, yet lacerating barbs, drawled in her Texas twang. “I’m delighted to be here with you this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like,” was one of her gentler gibes at the Connecticut-born patrician.

That was followed by the instantly iconic, “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Two years later, this divorced, 10-years-sober alcoholic, outspoken and decidedly liberal woman was elected governor of Texas — arguably the nation’s most macho state and certainly one of the most conservative. Are you wondering how that happened?

Emmy Award-winning actor Holland Taylor certainly was. So much so, that when Richards died in 2006, Taylor felt compelled to understand what made Richards such a force to be reckoned with, and how she captivated so many people.

A TV, film and stage actor, Taylor is currently best known for her work on the popular TV sitcom Two and a Half Men. (Your friendly reviewer remembers her most fondly as a fearsome, yet sultry, judge with a creative sensual life on “The Practice,” where she earned her Emmy.)

So Taylor pored over the details of Richards’ life for three years, interviewing friends and family, and studying Richards’ personal and public papers.

A conservative liberal

The result is a remarkable portrait of a vibrant and driven woman. In her public life, Ann Richards utilized hard-headed business sense by streamlining state government and its regulatory agencies to better serve both corporations and people, which helped revitalize the state’s economy and saved billions in government spending.

Yet she also devoted herself to traditional liberal concerns, such as the plight of poor families and children and, as a former teacher herself, education and school finance.

Gun control, helping minorities move into mainstream Texas life and government, equal rights and opportunity for women, and other socially liberal issues rounded out her portfolio.

And all this was accomplished as she maintained her down-to-earth style in which she usually said exactly what was on her mind.

In full disclosure, I spent time with Ann Richards and quickly became fond of her. In the 1988 campaign, I traveled with Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen, the senior U.S. senator from Texas, who later became secretary of the  treasury.

The popular Bentsen was simultaneously running to retain his Senate seat that year, and the Dukakis campaign thought the ticket might hat least have a chance at the Lone Star State’s hefty cache of electoral votes. The Boston-Austin combo worked once before, after all, for John F. Kennedy and his running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Whenever Bentsen landed in Texas for campaign stops, Richards was usually there to greet him. I spent many hours in her company, listening, laughing and learning.

Thus, it was astounding to meet her again onstage at the Eisenhower Theater, some five years after her death from esophageal cancer.

Taylor, who once successfully portrayed Nancy Reagan, looks very much like Richards here, capturing her stiff-shouldered, slightly hunched movement (Richards suffered from osteoporosis), generous hand gestures, and, of course, the whipped, bouffant white hair.

Becoming Ann

Taylor met Richards once, at a long, private dinner during the then-ex-Governor’s years in New York as a speaker, corporate advisor, and campaigner for Democratic candidates and causes.

She recreates that Texas twang perfectly, along with Richards’ withering sense of timing and bawdy humor. Her voice is smoother, without Richards’ slightly reedy rasp, but the effect is, nonetheless, astonishing.

Also central to the portrayal is the way she manages to combine Richards’ two sides —  the steely tough politician, and the sensitive and vulnerable woman who was mother to four children (and most everyone else who came into her orbit).

Directed by Benjamin Klein, the two-hour, two-act play opens with a video in which Taylor recreates a “news clip” from the electrifying 1988 speech. The first part of act two has her talking directly to the Kennedy Center audience, as if we are the students at a college graduation ceremony.

This allows Taylor to hopscotch through Richards’ challenging early life, later moving into the ornately detailed governor’s office, where she fields telephone calls, works on paperwork, barks at staff members, and even mends a fraying state flag while conducting business.

The scenes in the office are both the best and the weakest of the play. It is here where we see Richards in action and learn how her dedication to making government fair and responsive manifested itself, and how her personal life informed her public decision-making.

We see the real woman, kicking off her shoes and padding about barefoot while counseling President Clinton, or weighing life or death as a Texas inmate faces electrocution.

Unfortunately, the office scene in the first act also stretches on a bit too long, getting into some deep weeds that should be trimmed back to keep the focus on the woman, not the issues. But the second act springs back to life with full energy and charges toward an emotion-packed conclusion.

Writer Taylor has to touch on politics, of course, but this is not a political play. It is the story of a remarkable woman who happened to rise in a man’s world, survive “drunk school,” as she called it, and changed many lives for the better.

The name of the man who denied the otherwise popular Richards a second term (over the issue of gun control, many believe) is George W. Bush, but it is never uttered onstage. There are no cheap or easy shots here, and those who don’t share Richards’ political views will not be uncomfortable in her recreated presence.

That is Taylor’s gift to us as a playwright, just as it was Richards’ gift to those who knew her in life. Warmth (and occasionally her ire), was applied equally to all. Ann is a worthy homage to a woman who might well have been the first female president, with a few minor twists in timing and fate.

With earlier try-out productions in Austin and Chicago, it’s likely the Kennedy Center version will be what Taylor will take to New York. With luck, Taylor’s star power will draw attention.

Ann Richards deserves to be remembered by those who admired her, and she deserves to be introduced to those who do not know her. And this show does that, gently but firmly and, most important of all, entertainingly.

Ann continues through Jan. 15 in the Eisenhower Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St,, N.W. in Washington D.C.

Tickets range from $54 to $95. They are on sale at the Kennedy Center Box Office, by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600, or online at www.kennedy-center.org/tickets.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with matinee shows at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Michael Toscano is the Beacon’s theater critic.