The eve of a national political convention is as opportune a moment as any to summon the rabble-rousing ghost of Molly Ivins, the unreconstructed Texas liberal who loved nothing more than to place a few rhetorical matches between the toes of her conservative targets and giddily set the ensuing discourse ablaze.
The carousing journalist and sometime television personality is satisfyingly called forth in Arena Stage’s Cradle in the commanding personage of Kathleen Turner. For the 75 minutes of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” Turner prowls the confines of her compact domain and, with the aid of a gravelly twang and a pair of red cowboy boots, proceeds to reanimate the humor, by turns impish and withering, of a columnist beloved in progressive circles for conferring on George W. Bush the belittling nickname “Shrub.”
Opening the show while Republicans are out of town is not a bad move, because, as you might imagine, the thoughts ascribed to the late Ivins by sister journalist-playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel do not immediately provoke the thought that Karl Rove should host the cast party. (Margaret Engel, by the way, was once on the staff of The Washington Post.) When the audience leaps to its feet for the curtain call, one feels as if the muscular applause is both for the actress’s vigorous turn and the spectators’ own in-sync political views.
Preaching to the choir is no crime, but “Red Hot Patriot,” efficiently guided by director David Esbjornson, will have limited appeal for those unmoved by Ivins’s worldview, or uninterested in the (mostly) bygone thrills of hard-drinking newspaper people, or immune to the war stories of trailblazing women. On John Arnone’s spare set, Turner, in a denim work shirt and Ivins’s curly ’do, pecks away at a manual typewriter, of the variety seen these days only behind a glass enclosure at the Newseum. And on a screen behind her materialize vintage black-and-white photos of all-male Texas newsrooms that the determined Ivins managed to infiltrate.
Still, in the guise of Turner, Ivins emerges here as just the sort of person of outsize passion and vivacious excess you would like to believe can be nourished by a profession steeped in the notion of free expression. In that regard, “Red Hot Patriot” stands as a mini-monument to the whimsically unpredictable glories of the First Amendment.
The show is held together by Turner’s magnetism and Ivins’s lashing quips, which, until her death from breast cancer in 2007 at 62, bubbled forth from such publications as the Texas Observer, the Dallas Times-Herald and, for an unhappy spell, the New York Times. (She also did a stint as a commentator on “60 Minutes.”) The playwrights capably curate many of Ivins’s best lines, which tend to be folksy grenades tossed directly at the colorful gang of Texas pols with whom she carried on a torrid professional love-hate relationship. Of one she saw as especially intellectually challenged, she said: “If his IQ gets any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”
As this one-person bio-drama makes plain — her only stage companion is a silent copy boy played by Nicholas Yenson, who rips the wires of Ivins’s past stories off an ancient teletype machine — Ivins was a classic outsider, from classically bourgeois roots. (She adored her deeply conservative parents, especially her father, known as “the General”; they seemed to have battled to a mutually respectful draw.) The Engels posit her as a champion of all those she saw as, like herself, barred from the inner sanctum of white male power. It was her facility for turning the language of Bubba hilariously against him that made her so effective.
The concision of the piece and the vast archive of well-turned phrases that Ivins left behind explain why “Red Hot Patriot” is a more successful evening than “Ann,” the one-woman show about her close friend, the late former Texas governor Ann Richards, that actress Holland Taylor brought to the Kennedy Center in December. You wonder if a show in which these two entertaining figures actually spoke to each other, revealing each other’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses, might provide more enlightening portraits than do either of the solo pieces.
In any event, “Red Hot Patriot” will be a diverting slice of American political life for those who want some charismatic flesh wrapped around the voice of a singular commentator on the left. In a manner most news editors would find commendable, it addresses the quintessential five Ws that all good reporters take into account. In Turner’s watchable rendition, it’s the “Who” that resonates most emphatically.
by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel. Directed by David Esbjornson. Set, John Arnone; costumes, Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; original music and sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; projections, Maya Ciarrocchi; wig, Paul Huntley. About 75 minutes. Through Oct. 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.