Dallas — “If we rest, we rust,” says fast-moving Texas Governor Ann Richards, reflecting on some downhome truths she learned from her tough-as-nails mama in a lively production of Ann, the one-woman show written by and featuring Holland Taylor in the title role in its 2013 Lincoln Center debut, after it was workshopped at Austin’s Paramount Theatre. Taylor, an Emmy-award-winning television and film star (Two and a Half Men, The Practice), got a Tony nomination for her deeply researched script and formidable solo performance.
Now, Dallas Theater Center brings the play to the Kalita Humphreys Theater, starring Fort Worth-based Libby Villari, as the dynamic, unapologetic Democratic female who beat out a Republican to become Texas’ 45th governor. Quite a feat in a conservative state, especially considering she made no bones about being a divorced housewife, a recovered alcoholic, and a woman who’d like to see every man with a gun wear it on a chain around his neck. In fact, Richards’ real love of justice and fairness, and her honest, down-to-earth style sent a message everybody could at least comprehend, even if they disagreed. At one point in the show, she dresses down her attorney on the phone for giving her a briefing he must have intended for The Harvard Review. She also corrects her pet speechwriter: “Write it so my mama can understand it.”
Villari — best known for the TV series Friday Night Lights and the film Boyhood — has the stage presence and performance stamina to smartly revive the revival, and brightly recall Richards, who died in 2006. Villari recently played the role at Austin's Zach Theatre, and has performed it in Shreveport, Sonoma, and, in 2018, for various Texas Democratic campaigns, including for Beto O'Rourke. She walks onto the stage in a white designer suit (perfectly fitted by Jess Goldstein), her platinum hair glowing like an angel or a bright headlight on a dark country road, and takes her place behind a podium. Villari smiles confidently, and breaks the ice with a story about Ma Ferguson, the only other female governor, a job she inherited when Pa was impeached in 1917. From the minute she speaks, she sounds exactly like somebody you want to know better and better, and pretty soon you do. Villari is so good in her embodiment of Richards, you’re totally taken in within minutes, and from then on we hear Ann’s story straight from the feisty governor’s mouth.
In the first half-hour or so of the show, we learn that Ann grew up in a poor, hardworking family outside Waco, where she was the sunshine of her daddy’s days. He told her she was “really, really smart” and could do anything, including thrive in a San Diego school with a wildly diverse student population after the family moved there when Ann was in grade school. She gets spontaneous applause on opening night when she admits that “life was never the same for me after that,” because “I never understood racial prejudice.” How welcome that line resonates across the theater right now, when economic and racial division is the subject of every other news story.
Ann’s mama, on the other hand, bequeathed her daughter a darker view of life and taught her to be tough and work like there’s no tomorrow. Even when her elderly daddy is worried about old Mama climbing on the roof to clean the gutters, Ann isn’t worried. “As if falling off the house would hurt my mama,” she says, Villari pausing to deliver the line with hard-won pride. That combination of smarts and stringy-muscled toughness carries Ann through a helpful housewife stint, married to a civil rights lawyer, and on to a campaign for governor when suddenly she’s the only will-do Democratic candidate. And boy does she ever do it.
Villari and the play crank into overdrive once Ann has gathered her coven of hundreds of women “on their brooms” and propelled their gal into the governor’s office, beautifully detailed by scenic designer Juliana von Haubrich. She put on triple red lipstick and worked her butt off. “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life, at least since junior high,” she tells us of the campaign, reminding everybody that politics in Texas is not only a “contact sport”, but basically adolescent in its fury and periodic bursts of passion. She won, of course.
We’re nearly as tired as relentless Ann at the end of a day in the governor’s chair, answering calls from Bill Clinton, juggling a family holiday get-together with her kids, while trying to talk to Mother Teresa about clemency for a death-row murderer Ann deeply pities for his miserable childhood. Mexican border problems arise, and a vote is coming up on the disposal of nuclear waste. Still, nurturing Ann straightens the golden fringe on the Texas flag beside her desk, and lays down the law to a daughter about who bakes the pies and to a son about teasing a sibling over the controversial charades tradition at family gatherings. Sound familiar?
Director Kristen van Ginhoven moves her busy Texas icon and in-charge matriarch seamlessly from the opening podium to the governor’s office. Ann has time to take off her three-inch heels and flex a shapely ankle between calls to world leaders. A charming and structurally dramatic aspect of the play is Ann’s interaction with her staff, mostly through the offstage voice of her longtime secretary, “wicked smart” Nancy Kohler, perfectly voiced by Tony-winner Julie White. From her whirling chair, the governor shouts questions and instructions to patient Nancy, who is busy tracking an order of handmade boots Ann has ordered for all her beloved, harangued staff.
Act II is funny and endearing, especially as Ann admits she’s getting “so forgetful, pretty soon I’ll be able to hide my own Easter eggs.” What a grand moment for women and all Texans was Richards’ governorship. Even though the last scene is a kind of patriotic pitch to take part in your community and in your elections, I felt that rush of pride and gratitude for good, hard-working politicians I’ve worked hard for in my own life.
Also, I kept thinking, how totally terrific it would be to have a woman for president of the United States in 2020. Women rule well for all. See Ann. You’ll see.