As strains of Willie Nelson’s plaintive tune “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” strum in the dark, lights come up on an almost bare three-quarter thrust stage. Tad off center left, a tall, raw-boned woman with a full mane of tawny hair rears back in a grey utilitarian rolling office chair behind a grey utilitarian metal desk piled randomly with pens, paper, coffee cups and an old manual typewriter.
The simple block letter sign shoved to the front of the desk’s cascade of debris reads Molly Ivins. Frustrated, pissed off, the statuesque woman bemoans her inability to come up with printable words to fill the clean sheet of paper waiting in the carriage. “Sonofabitch,” she exclaims in disgust and hauls herself up to pace the stage like a caged lioness, a Texas-styled Amazon in jeans and red cowboy boots. She’s sharing a vulnerable moment. Molly Ivins with writer’s block? Imagine that.
Even an Olympian can experience an occasional mental lapse like regular folk.
Right off the bat, Margaret and Allison Engel’s Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, having its Texas premiere at Austin’s Zach Theatre, thrusts its audience directly into the personal reality of its intimidating, iconic heroine of a subject.
Very little speechifying from a pedestal exists in this play, which lasts a bit more than 90 minutes without intermission. Award-winning journalists, themselves, with long track records in a tough-to-survive-in business, the Engel sister playwright duo bypasses any inclination to cheapen the work with maudlin deification, still allowing the larger than life aspirations and accomplishments of their amazing subject to shine through with her gritty, irreverent, often besotted persona intact. For the most part they succeed, even when the cinematic nature of the performance feels slightly awkward on stage.
Molly, or her spirit essence, exists in some sort of timeless, sparse office limbo “now,” sharing key episodes and moments of special impact to her life, both inner and outer, in retrospect. She unfolds her tale casually and confidentially, addressing the audience directly in episodic fashion, with iron-willed, steel-eyed clarity and relentless honesty. On an upstage scrim, magnified black and white photographs of Molly, her family, her dog “Shit,” special associates and politicos and shots from 1960s newspaper life flash by (scenic design is by John Arnone; video design by Maya Ciarrocchi).
Molly refers to them proudly or wistfully, as if it were all part of a planned presentation. A generic office copy boy (Gray Randolph) in 60s attire functions as the catalyst for scene change and occasional humorous relief, pulling sheets off an old-fashioned AP wire machine and handing them to Molly deadpan fashion, in transition to the next episode or beat. On screen, this device would flow smoothly; here, it becomes repetitive and makes some scene shifts feel cumbersome, illogical.
The Zach Theatre’s production of Red Hot Patriot thrives under the much-lauded direction of David Esbjornson, who directed and co-created the original production in 2010 at The Philadelphia Theatre Company, which featured Kathleen Turner as Molly Ivins. “We used much of Molly’s writing but also had to imagine her in the present as she might have been if she were still among us,” Esbjornson writes in the director’s notes.
The Zach’s open thrust space suits the multi-media presentational style of the piece. In Austin’s Barbara Chisholm, Esbjornson cast an actor who brilliantly sustains the artistic arc of the piece while creating an unforgettable, realistic portrayal of an American legend. Dripping with brazen charisma and bravado, Chisholm tosses off Molly’s rattler-sharp barbs like she was born to it.
In the next moment, she retreats inward to become the deeply wounded daughter of “The General” (her perfectionist dad who commits suicide), the devastated sweetheart of a brilliant biologist killed in Vietnam, or the populist journalist sounding alarm, adrift in a contentious sea of male political incompetence and graft. To those who knew the woman, herself, Chisholm’s Molly must feel like a most welcome ghost. For those of us who adored her through her writing, Chisholm embodies the essence of the Molly whose words resonate so deeply in our hearts and minds.
Editor's Note: A full version of this review is on CriticalRant.com, which is a TheaterJones media partner.