For those of you in the audience—and you know who you are—who never refer to him by any other name but “Dubya”; whose rants about Texas politicians overuse the word “piss-ant”; and who, dozens of times in the past six years, have groaned over another political outrage and wondered “What Would Molly Say?”… Well, it’s a no-brainer: you’d enjoy the heck out of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Water Tower Theatre. It’s a fully transplanted Stage West production, written by journalist sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, that was a hit for the Fort Worth company in 2012. Once more, Georgia Clinton holds forth as Miss Molly’s red-headed reincarnation, shamelessly preaching to the populist/liberal/progressive choir—and it’s awful nice to hear her voice again.
Of course, if lefty firebrand journalist Ivins (who died of breast cancer in 2007 at age 62) got on your last nerve during her lifetime, this probably isn’t your idea of fun. Still, we have a suggestion: buy a ticket for your annoying Liberal Democrat uncle/cousin/daughter/friend—and tell them it’s an apology, in advance, for the fight you’re going to have at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Might make the holidays go smoother.
Red Hot Patriot, which lets Ivins tell her own life story—and who better?—is drawn from her vibrant, satirical newspaper columns and articles for The Texas Observer, the Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (not so much from her work for The New York Times, where she was seldom allowed to be funny); from her many books, including Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? and Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush; and from what she called her “speechifyin’” for the ACLU and other groups—as well as conversations with friends and colleagues.
The Engel sisters told an interviewer they began talking about memorializing Ivins onstage—keeping her voice alive—“literally the day she died.” They thought of her as a latter-day Mark Twain, and envisioned a show like Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight. And though they’d never written a play before, their idea led a charmed life: in 2010, it was a hit in Philadelphia with Kathleen Turner playing the lead, and went on to successes in Washington D.C., Austin and other cities.
Stage West’s co-producers—director Dana Schultes and set designer Jim Covault--wisely give center stage to Ivins’ passionate words. It’s a smartly unfussy stage set, with an old Associated Press teletype machine on one side and Molly’s desk, typewriter and “I’m thinkin’” chair on the other. The sounds of yesterday’s newsroom—the pings of an electric typewriter, the whirring clicks of AP wire copy coming in—are enough to make a grown journalist cry. Clinton is alone onstage, except for pictures of her life and times projected on a screen upstage—and the presence of a Helper character (Wes Cantrell), a silent young man who rips copy for her to read and brings the occasional coffee. He’s rather like one of Edward Albee’s or Tony Kushner’s angels of death—not scary, but a reminder that we aren’t quite in real life or real time here—and that time, for Ivins, ran out too soon.
The connective thread of the script follows Ivins’ struggle to write a column (for the first and last time) in April of 1988 about her father James—known as “The General”—a tall, tough Houston oil executive. Maybe there was love in their relationship deep down under…but on the surface, it was “dinner table warfare” that lasted for years. She hated the River Oaks lifestyle and his right-wing views. He hated, well, everything about her life, her work and her politics.
As she struggles to find the right words, Ivins gets up from the desk in frustration, distracting herself, perhaps, by launching into the story of her life—starting with her parents’ attempts to raise her as a Houston debutante. Six-foot-tall Molly, she says, felt “like a St. Bernard among greyhounds.” Country club dances, yacht club races, and tony private schools filled her early years; but after she took a summer job at the Houston Chronicle during college, her exposure to the hidden side of her home city’s life changed her future. “Once you realize they’re lying to you about race, everything else follows,” she says. And the Molly Ivins who championed the powerless--and spit fire at the powerful--was born.
Inevitably, the script feels choppy and episodic, but Ivins’ sharp and funny wit keeps us company. And while Clinton can’t match Ivins’ throaty vocal sound, she has the cadence, the accent, and the attitude down perfectly. Particularly vivid is the description of her ill-starred stint at The New York Times. The “gray lady” of newspapers hired her to spice up their dull copy—then had editors “de-claw and neuter” every word she wrote. Exiled to the paper’s Rocky Mountain bureau in Denver, she famously got herself in trouble for calling a community chicken festival a “gang pluck.” And though the play is wrong—she wasn’t fired over that—it was the beginning of the end for Molly in New York.
Before the Times, Ivins had spent much of the 1970s working for the ultra-liberal Texas Observer, developing a writing voice that distilled the “piss and vinegar” of good Texas speech—and loving being one of the first women to cover the Texas “Lege” in Austin, where she learned about politics from “Professor Bob” Bullock, Ann Richards and others. “Can you believe God gave me all this material—for free?” she crowed. And after New York, she came back to Texas to work for the Dallas Times Herald and then the Star-Telegram—all the while “cracking wise” about Texas for 60 Minutes, on TV talk shows and in national publications. She was, for many years, the country’s best-known “explainer” of all things Texas.
“Jokes are a means to an end,” she said to those who criticized her for mocking everything about politics. They open up people’s ears, she believed. She liked to call herself a populist, not a liberal—because, she said, populists “tend to have more fun.” She said once that if a certain politico’s IQ “slips any lower, we’re going to have to water him twice a day.” She noted that George W. Bush wasn’t really bilingual (he repeated the same two Spanish sentences over and over), but “bi-ignorant.” She even made fun of her own worst tendencies, especially her drinking. “Alcohol may lead to nowhere,” she wrote, “but it sure is the scenic route.”
And in the play, as in her life, Molly Ivins wants more from us than a laugh. “Dearly Beloveds,” she wrote in her last column, “…We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders.” What would Molly have said about Citizens United, about the Tea Party, about Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, about drones in the air over Pakistani towns? Time to stop wondering what Molly would say, she’d growl in that inimitable voice: “You are a citizen….What do YOU say?”