Ann Richards, who has come remarkably back to life thanks to Holland Taylor’s impressive impersonation of her at Lincoln Center, became a national celebrity and the governor of Texas after she lampooned the gaffe-prone patrician Republican presidential candidate during the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention: “Poor George, he can’t help it; he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
That most famous of her wisecracks is nowhere to be found in “Ann,” but another one from that convention speech is, and it is a better fit for the improbable career of a divorced mother of four and AA-attending alcoholic who became a national symbol and inspiration: Slyly pushing for a greater role for women in politics, she said “…if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did; she just did it backwards and in high heels.”
In “Ann,” opening tonight at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Holland Taylor is probably less Ginger Rogers than Hal Holbrook. For more than half a century, Holbrook, a familiar character actor on television, has gone around the country performing a one-man stage show impersonating Mark Twain. Holland Taylor, best-known for her roles on television in “Bosom Buddies,” “Two and A Half Men” and “The Practice,” spent years researching and writing “Ann,” her first play, and has performed it in Chicago and Washington and Texas. Ann Richards even resembled Mark Twain a bit; both were white-haired, white-suited, witty American originals.
Taylor’s play is divided into three unequal sections. In the first, Ann is addressing a graduating class, an opportunity to present some bawdy jokes and the bare bones of her biography: She grew up the daughter of a loving pharmaceutical salesman with an eighth-grade education, and a tough-to-please mother, in hardscrabble, conservative Texas. She gained her liberal outlook because of time spent in public school with a rainbow coalition of classmates in California. “From then on, I just flat never understood racial prejudice.”
Married at 19, she eventually entered politics as a campaigner for others, then ran for county commissioner and worked her way up – boosted to the governorship in the wake of the attention because of her 1988 keynote address.
A detailed replica of the governor’s office slides to the front of the stage, and we see the life of Governor Richards, as she works the telephones (the only other voice we hear is that of her secretary, played by Julie White.) She is chummy with her pal President Clinton; she barks at her staff, then buys them presents to make up; she fixes the fraying flag in her office while she tries to mediate a dispute between her two (grown) sons caused by a game of charades, all while considering whether to grant a stay of execution to an inmate on Death Row who killed an elderly nun, for which she is being lobbied by the Pope and Mother Teresa. They both want the governor to grant the stay.
The last and least effective section is her life after she lost her campaign for re-election (the play doesn’t say that it was to George W. Bush), when she became a consultant based in New York, and a fixture on TV talk shows. She is back talking to the graduating class, describing her death and her funeral.
As beloved as she was, Richards was a one-term governor who died in 2006 of cancer at the age of 73. She was, let’s face it, no Mark Twain. Is it churlish to point out that other people wrote her best-known lines?
Still, Holland Taylor has fashioned an engaging entertainment from her undisguised labor of love. Her performance is first-rate; although from Philadelphia,she gets that Texas twang down just right — the best Southern accent this season. If “Ann” is not especially insightful, it provides a useful service: It reminds us that such a person as Ann Richards is possible, a politician who actually stood for something and also made us laugh.
At the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center
Written and performed by Holland Taylor
Directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein
Scenic design by Michael Fagin, costume design by Julie Weiss, lighting desig by Matthew Richards, sound design by Ken Huncovsky, projection design by Zachary Borovay
Cast: Holland Taylor as Ann Richards, Julie White as the voice of Nancy Kohler
Running time: about two hours including one 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $75 – $125. Student rush: $30
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