Molly Ivins (1944-2007) was a beloved Texas newspaper columnist, political commentator, author and humorist. And her perspicacious wit comes through loud and clear, despite Kathleen Turner’s somewhat mixed performance in this one-woman show at the Berkeley Rep.
Ivins was famous for her bright and brash personality, her acerbic sharpness, her liberal leanings, and her continued amazement and amusement with the folly and foolhardiness of Republican politicians in general, and Texas Republican politicians in particular. She was the first to call our 43rd president, George W. Bush, “shrub.”
Early in her career, Ivins was hired by the New York Times (1976-1982), when it sought a writer who was not as staid and dull as its normal hires. Her two claims to fame there were her 1977 obituary of Elvis Presley, and her article about a “community chicken-killing festival” in New Mexico, which she referred to as a “gang-pluck.”
After being reined in because of that article, she left the Times to return to Texas, where her newspaper column (first in the Dallas Times Herald, 1985-1991, and then in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, 1992-2001) grew to be syndicated to nearly 400 newspapers. In her free time, Ivins wrote several bestselling books and kept a busy speaking schedule around the country. Her 2007 death from breast cancer cut short a brilliant career.
So, Ivins would seem to be a first-class subject for a one-woman show. And she is. But Red Hot Patriot is not the most tightly written play, and Turner is not the perfect actor for this vehicle.
First-time playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel present an awfully loose structure that has Ivins trying to write a column about her father, with whom she had a difficult relationship, but procrastinating by talking to the audience while reviewing her soon-to-be-ending life. A second, silent cast member (Michael Barrett Austin) brings Ivins news bulletins from an aged teletype machine that serve to prompt her memories and move the show to its next subject, as does a series of photographs projected at the rear of the stage filled with bare stacked desks.
The show has many funny and pointed quotes from Ivins’ columns, interviews, and speeches on political and social subjects, which will particularly tickle Berkeley audiences. There’s nothing like someone super smart and funny agreeing with you. In addition to her father, some other subdued issues are raised, including her loss of two love relationships to early death, the staggering death toll of the Vietnam War and the cancer that killed her.
I’ve been a fan of Kathleen Turner and enjoyed her many films (especially Body Heat, Romancing the Stone, and Jewel of the Nile), but she simply isn’t convincing as Ivins, given the script she has to work with. She looks the part, dressed in a bit too tight demin shirt, pants and cowboy boots. When she stands, her feet are wide apart and her hands are on her hips, Texas style. When at her desk, she leans back in her chair, with her legs up on the desk, all presumably the work of director David Esbjornson. But her low voice isn’t as expressive, forceful and understandable as it should be.
Red Hot Patriot is only 75 minutes long. It’s a diverting 75 minutes, but it should have been a more compelling production.
Red Hot Patriot plays at Berkeley Rep through Jan. 4, 2014. Check for information and tickets, at Berkeley Rep online.
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