(This ran in The Dallas Morning News 1/23/12, but for some reason is not on the Web site.)
LOS ANGELES — The late political columnist Molly Ivins came into this world a daughter of privilege but left it at age 62 an unrepentant hell-raiser and populist, as Kathleen Turner is demonstrating onstage at the Geffen Playhouse. Turner, the once smoldering star of “Body Heat” and now post-femme fatale, puts on red cowboy boots and essays a comic Lone Star vernacular to bring Ivins back to life in the one-woman show “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” running here through February 19.
Co-authored by the journalist sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, the show derives from a career’s worth of distinctive and salty prose Ivins produced for The Texas Observer, The New York Times, Dallas Times Herald and others. The conjunction of the personal and political in her work makes it possible for the 75-minute play to unfold as memoir cum state house primer, with Texas her lifelong partner in word-processing.
Although Ivins achieved a national reputation for her quotable observations on the sport of Texas politics, as one-person shows go, “Red Hot Patriot” is unusual for its actress being more famous than its subject, who died in 2007 of breast cancer. This is adventurous and problematic. An accomplished thespian as well as movie star, Turner easily commands our attention from a seat at Ivins’ old desk in an empty and nondescript newsroom, but her husky declamations of Ivins’ droll one-liners never quite reach Austin’s city limits.
Turner has stated earlier (the show originated in Philadelphia last year) that she is not attempting to mimic Ivins’ voice or personality, but, that said, her performance would benefit from an imagined acquaintance with Scholtz Beer Garden and a few verses of Willie Nelson.
As it is, “Red Hot Patriot,” directed by David Esbjornson, is often entertaining, given its source material (“Texas ain’t all what people think it is – just mostly”), and informative, offering a refresher course in the current events of the last 40 years, as sifted by one of Smith College’s more colorfully ornery alumnae, ending in a plea to renew our democracy. When a giant image of George W. Bush fills the back wall, Ivins remembers the former president (not favorably) from her days as a Houston debutante. After he beat her friend Ann Richards to become governor of Texas, she dubbed him “Shrub.”
Some of her most memorable columns are recreated in context – her fervent opposition to the Vietnam War recalled in the moment her eyes fell upon the name of a boyfriend from Yale etched into the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Ivins’ father was an oil executive and Republican, and she grew apart from him as she developed a social conscience and affinity for the rowdy world of newsprint. Her combative relationship with “the admiral,” as she called him, provides a set of bookends for the evening. Confronting her typewriter at the outset, struggling to find the right words to describe him just after his death, she stares off into the middle distance, her hands not touching the keys. After a pause, she looks up and says, “This is what writing looks like.” It’s a laugh line but is, of course, true.