Fort Worth — “Poor George,” she said with a small smile. “He can’t help it…
“He was born with a silver foot in his mouth!”
Laid out before us in Holland Taylor’s play Ann, the one-woman show at Stage West about the late Texas governor Ann Richards (1933-2006), is a feast of quotable quips and worthy one-liners—so many goodies, in fact, that the playwright doesn’t even need to include Richard’s deadliest political zinger, aimed at then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, from her address at the 1988 Democratic Convention.
Richards’ keynote speech rolled delegates right off their chairs, and put America on notice that the Lone Star State was pulling ahead in the race for “Funniest Dang Governor Ever.”
Oh, Miss Ann—we’ve missed you.
Stage West’s 38th season begins with something of a coup. Not only is this Ann a much-sought-after regional premiere, it’s the first time any theater in the country has been given the rights to the show. Actress-turned-playwright Taylor (Two and a Half Men, One Fine Day, Romancing the Stone, etc.) starred in her own original production, which began in Texas and went to Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Broadway in 2013, and returned to Austin this year. Taylor knew Richards in New York during the later years of her life, and was inspired to write the play as a tribute.
Ann’s director Dana Schultes, Stage West’s executive producer, secured rights to Ann—and recalled in a video preview for the show (above) that Taylor was intrigued not just by the company, but also by a link between Stage West and the political legacy of Ann Richards: progressive Texas Democrat Wendy Davis is the daughter of Stage West founder Jerry Russell, who died in 2013.
Taylor, said Schultes, just thought it was “meant to be.”
Stage West’s own “Ann”—the multifaceted actress (and singer) Linda Kay Leonard—is stepping into some stylish shoes, and doing a fairly fine job of it. She looks every inch the part: that blinding white meringue of hair (“I get a lot of cracks about my hair, mostly from men who don’t have any!”) and Chanel knock-off suit to match; lipstick the red of a brand-new flag; and the high heels that took the petite Richards up a notch…as if she needed it. (Hooray for Aaron Patrick DeClerk’s just-like-her costume design and Coy Covington’s elegant wig.)
And Leonard has the voice, too: drawling out a bawdy story, tanning the hide off a disappointing staffer, teasing a president, or pow-wowing with her kids about a fishing trip—there’s power and warmth in that voice (even when she’s mad), and a heart trying to do right. And while there were some moments of hesitation in Leonard’s delivery on the opening weekend, her overall performance was compelling and full of life and laughter.
All in all, Taylor’s script is lucky to have Richard’s wit and humor to tap, because the trajectory of the play doesn’t hold many surprises. We’re introduced to our character, hear about her childhood, marriage, and political ambitions—and then follow Richards through “a day in the life” of the governor and on to some last comments on what she feels about politics, democracy—and how we all can get involved. Politics is nasty, you say? “Hell, girls,” she grins, “we’ve seen far dirtier fights in the PTA.”
In the end, it’s the sheer pleasure of her company that holds our attention and catches at our hearts. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with Ann Richards for a couple of hours?
This is definitely a feel-good play, reminding us of all we miss about Richards—and telling us a few things we never knew. Dorothy Ann Willis, growing up in a small town outside Waco, had a father who was “sunshine” and a mother who “pulled me through a knothole” all during her childhood. Dad said she could be anything; Mom’s approval was something she chased after…forever. Both relationships explain a lot.
When she was 11, a move to San Diego widened Ann’s world. “My eyes popped open,” she says, to find herself living in a city full of all kinds of kids and families—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—rubbing elbows and getting along pretty well at school and on the job. Ann saw “simple fairness” at work—and didn’t see why life in Texas couldn’t be more like that.
She talks about her romance with future civil rights lawyer David Richards—and their divorce. She remembers being a young Austin mother and wife working on political campaigns—but never thinking of diving in herself. And she speaks frankly about her problems with alcohol. She was very public about her AA meetings and hard-won recovery—at a time when that wasn’t the usual way to handle the subject.
We hear about her years as governor (1991-1995) of a state starting to turn from blue to red. Richards worked for all Texans, but perhaps with special fervor for women, children, minorities, the disabled and the LGBT community. “Life isn’t fair,” she says. “But government should be.” Over the phone, she gossips with Bill Clinton, struggles to decide if she’ll stay the execution of a convicted death-row rapist, and wears her Mom hat to soothe the feelings of a son and send waves of love to a granddaughter.
Director Schultes puts as much activity and “business” into the play as she can: Richards twirls her long, long telephone cord (yes, it was the early ‘90s), searches through her purse, prowls the room in frustration, pages through piles of state documents she needs to sign—and cranes her neck toward an unseen secretary, Nancy (voiced with dry humor by Schultes). Set designer Kevin Brown’s version of the governor’s office is big and handsome, and fleshed out nicely by Lynn Lovett’s props and décor.
In the end, Richards lost the 1994 gubernatorial election to George W. Bush—in part because of her fierce opposition to concealed carry gun laws. When asked if she didn’t think women would feel safer if they had guns in their purses, Richards replied, with equal parts humor and truth: “There is not a woman in this state who could find a gun in her handbag.”
Funny and tough, Ann Richards pushed open the doors of good-ol’-boy Texas to people who’d been shut out—and changed Texas politics forever.
“We’ve rung a bell that can’t be unrung,” she said—and walked off to the rest of her life.
Along with Jubilee Theatre’s current show Working: A Musical, Stage West’s Ann arrives just in time for our hotter-than-hot election season. “The government is you,” Richards reminds us. “And bad things happen when [you] don’t vote.”