You don’t have to agree with her politics to give a smile and a nod to Ann Richards, first woman governor of Texas, pro-choice mother of four, recovered alcoholic and advisor to Democratic politicians all the way to the President. Though she died in 2006, she lives again in this ninety-minute one-woman show written by Holland Taylor.
Politicians and would be runners take note: audiences respond to humor and honesty, but most of all, to the kind authenticity you can’t get from polls and focus groups. If “Ann”, directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven is a reliable source, then Ann Richards had all of those qualities and much more.
Arena presents “Ann” in association with the Dallas Theatre Center, and from the moment she steps out on to the Lone Star stage, we feel right at home at an imaginary Texas college graduation. Jayne Atkinson in the titular role absorbs the warmth of the audience and feeds it right back – in personal anecdotes, self-deprecating humor, motherly advice, and one very risqué joke.
She traces her ascent into politics from housewife and mother to Travis County Commissioner, to State Treasurer, to main speaker at the 1988 DNC, and finally, first woman governor of Texas. And she thrived. “Texas politics is a contact sport” she declares. But it wouldn’t have happened without the people who loved her staging an intervention on her alcoholism, and a few months in rehab. Her marriage to Civil Rights lawyer, Dave Richards, also suffered and died. But in politics she was able to fight for the causes she believed in and round up women like herself to join in – “women with a glint!”
From the graduation address, “Ann” takes us into the Governor’s office for a “day in the life” snapshot of this frank, funny, feisty woman at work. She balances whiny interruptions from one of her grown children with affectionate calls for advice from Bill Clinton.
She takes calls, avoids calls, kicks her high heels off to rest her tired feet and is never less than transparent about her motivations and votes. A capital punishment case is looming large and only she can stop the execution. Why would anyone stop the execution of a punk who raped and murdered a 76-year-old nun? She explains. This is a boy who was born without a chance. The nuns themselves have forgiven him and beg for his reprieve. Ann Richards looks for the humanity in her decisions first.
Ms. Atkinson is a wonder in this role, and even if she doesn’t convince you to her point of view, she convinces you that this is the way politics should look. Dressed in her signature gleaming white “power” suit and heels, snow white hair neatly coiffed, she radiates the assurance of a woman who is in control of herself, who knows that in this wild rodeo ride called politics, she can fall and will always get back up again. She is also master of the significant pause.
It’s to be expected that in a city like D.C. (is there any city “like” D.C.?) at a theatre such as Arena, the audience of hip young progressives will be eating out of her hand. They were, of course, “oohing” like a call and response service to anything she said that could be remotely rewired to today’s political scene. And while a few members near me were annoyingly loud about their political fervor, it didn’t detract from the mastery of Ms. Atkinson’s performance, or the fluidity and coherence of the script, with one exception.
To have her announce to the audience that she has died and reflect on later developments, in my view, revokes the silent contract between audience and stage. She’s alive. We came to see her alive. If what she had to say while she was alive resonates with us today, all the better.
Regardless of whether you sit right, left, in the middle or on the fence, there is a hunger for decency and authenticity from our public servants today. An evening spent with “Ann” won’t solve anything, but it will renew a flicker of hope in humanity.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
Where: Arena Stage in the Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 488-3300 or visit arenastage.org
Playing through Aug. 11