Fort Worth — Governor Ann Richards was a legendary figure as chief executive of the Lone Star State and truly one of Texas’ most unforgettable characters. Richards will be brought to life in a performance of Holland Taylor’s Ann, having its first regional production without its original star, opening this week at Stage West.
Written and originally performed by actor and Emmy Award winner Holland Taylor (Two and Half Men, The Practice, Bosom Buddies), Ann has received critical acclaim when it began in 2010 in Texas, playing Galveston, Austin and San Antonio, and then on to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and in 2013, Broadway.
When the play returned to Austin earlier this year, Stage West Executive Producer Dana Schultes accepted the mission to bring Ann to Fort Worth—after months of emails and calls, and then, after rights were secured, meeting with Taylor and producer Kevin Bailey.
And it’s just in time to provide us with some laughs and relief from the current presidential election drama. It also echoes the current race, given Ann’s 1990 defeat of the blustery Clayton Williams, whose inability to self-edit what came out of his mouth was a big part of his downfall. Ahem.
This is a theater with a love for politically outspoken women, after all. Stage West’s founder, the late Jerry Russell, is the father of Wendy Davis, who went from Fort Worth City Council to Texas Senator, where a historic filibuster of a plan to shut down Planned Parenthood captured her national attention (and happened during the Broadway run of Ann), and then a failed bid for Texas Governor. Stage West was also one of the earliest theaters to do the one many show about Texas firebrand political columnist Molly Ivins; and has done Voice of Good Hope, a play about Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate.
Stage West secured the rights to Ann before they were officially available. The one-woman show opens Stage West’s 38th season, the first season chosen by Schultes, who also directs Ann.
For the actor, she picked well-known local actor/director/choreographer Linda Kay Leonard for the role of Richards. Leonard has received praise as Sylvie in The Nance, Aurora/Spiderwoman in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, just to name a few.
An Indiana native, Leonard fell in love with acting at the age of seven. She received her Actor’s Equity card at 18 and when she moved to Texas in the early ’90s, her first acting gig was in Stage West’s first show at the University Theatre (the Kander/Ebb revue And the World Goes ’Round).
TheaterJones talked with Leonard about this bigger-than-life role, how she prepared for it, what getting advice from Taylor (who’s currently in the Broadway revival of The Front Page).
TheaterJones: What attracted you to this role?
Linda Kay Leonard: It interested me because Ann was one of the first women in government to actually make a difference. Dana had approached me because she thought I could handle the roll. She told me physically, it was my blue eyes and high cheekbones, and emotionally, it was my positive spirit. In life, that’s what Ann was, a positive force. She believed that we could accomplish things if we all work together for the greater good; she lived her life that way and created politics that way. Dana sent me the script and told me she wanted me to audition for the role. She saw a lot of women, and called back five of us. For the call back I decided I needed to look like Ann, so I went with the white hair and I got it.
You actually talked to Holland Taylor about the role?
Holland met Ann in NYC through a mutual friend and was close to her for almost four years before Ann passed away. She has been very generous and helpful, spending hours with me. She told me she wanted to hear me read some of the script. So I did, over the phone. Holland reminded me that Ann was a public servant in the true sense of the term. She wanted to serve the public and make life better for everyone around her. That’s the drive that takes you through the play. Holland said to me, “Never make her sentimental, she was not a sentimental person. There are three times in the play where you allow that little bit of layer to be seen.” That was a very helpful piece of advice.
In what other ways have you prepared for the role?
It’s two hours of me. I started practicing a month-and-a-half before rehearsals, four hours a day. I am using as much of myself as I can in the role with the things that are alike in us. A lot of times when an actor portrays a character, you start out looking at all of the things that they did, and ask how you can reproduce that—but I’ve looked more within in creating this character, maybe more than I ever have in my life.
The words that Holland has written in the script are direct quotes from Ann, many from her book Straight from the Heart. Ann had this ability to touch people in a very direct, very homespun way. When talking to her speechwriter, Ann would say, “We have to get this press release ready, and you better write it so my momma can read it.” We certainly can’t reproduce her but that positive energy and that essence she had in terms of problem solving and wanting the best for everyone is what I have to bring to the role. If I can accomplish that, I think I will honor her appropriately.
How is this production different than Taylor’s performances?
In the first section of the play, Richards is giving a speech at a college graduation. Then Richards steps away from the podium and onto a set that represents the Texas governor’s office, where a stressful day in the life of the hard-driving Richards unfolds.
We are in a 150-seat house, so we are not going to have all the bells and whistles Holland was able to have, but Stage West will work its magic because we have a brilliant team of designers. We made my office as authentic as possible. The audience is six or seven feet from me, so it’s going to feel different. I have to set up the grandeur of a huge room and then bring that into the office.
Some critics said the play was short on conflict and depth. What is your reaction to that?
There is conflict in it with every problem she has to solve. For me, I’m very much in touch with my Pollyanna as an artist and as a human being and I’m planning to use some of that, not in a rosy-world way, but in the way that as my parents told me, if you work hard enough you can achieve anything you want. That is exactly what Ann’s father said to her. Ann believed that but it didn’t mean there are not huge problems to solve.
In the play, she’s dealing with a stay of execution. [In 1992, Gov. Richards granted a reprieve to a man two hours before he was to be executed for the rape and murder of a 76-year-old Roman Catholic nun.] In the state of Texas, at the time, it was a huge deal for her to give that stay of execution but she believed in her heart that it was the right thing to do. She was criticized for being soft, but that was not what it was. She had the Pope, the nun’s convent…they sent her letters asking her to forgive this young man and that weighted so heavily on her conscience. I think that is pretty deep.
Tell me about working with Dana Schultes as a director.
It was a real coup to get this property. Dana has directed several one-person shows and she understands that everyone has a different process. We have been discovering what works for me.
How has being a cancer survivor affected the way you portray Richards, who died of cancer in 2006?
The first time I read it, I thought “I can’t go there.” But in the script Ann says “I got my momma’s grit: she taught me you don’t cry over spilt milk, if my momma’s your momma, you don’t cry at all.” She fought until the end. When I had cancer, once I found out what I had, I said “I’m going to fix this.” How do you deal with battles? You hit the gas; you go full force forward. That’s what Ann used to say.