There is something a bit hokey and ridiculous about the way Holland Taylor is leaning between the Wild West-style swinging doors inside Hill Country barbecue, posing for a photo that seems to imply she’s about to barge through that wooden gate and demand in a drawl that everybody put their hands where she can see them.
But Taylor is here because of Ann Richards, the late Texas governor, a woman who, politically and personally, was deeply devoted to all things Lone Star State. Taylor has written and is performing the one-woman show “Ann,” which arrives at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 17.
This is to say: If paying proper tribute to Richards requires mugging like somebody out of a spaghetti Western, then Taylor will gladly mug. It doesn’t take more than five minutes with her to see that she’ll do whatever it takes to do right by Ann Richards.
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This story begins at the end.
Ann Richards died on Sept. 13, 2006. She served as governor of Texas from 1991 to 1995, only the second woman to do so, and dedicated herself to filling appointed positions with more women and minorities than any of her predecessors.
And she was funny. Not that forced, gaffe-prone politician funny, but really funny. Everything she thought, she said. When asked what she would’ve done differently had she known her governorship would last only one term (she lost her run for reelection to George W. Bush), she quipped, “Oh, I would probably have raised more hell.”
“When she died,” Taylor said, sitting at Hill Country beneath a massive Texas flag, “I was struck with a kind of childish, shocked feeling that it just simply couldn’t be so.”
Though the 68-year-old Taylor met Richards only once, over lunch with their mutual friend Liz Smith, she’d long been an admirer of the feisty, outspoken politician. In hindsight, Taylor thinks Richards reminded her of her Aunt Louise; they had a similar playful spirit, a way of “noticing things about you.”
Richards “had become some kind of star in my heavens,” Taylor said. “She became an extremely comforting figure for me.”
The idea of paying tribute to Richards lingered in Taylor’s imagination, but her ideas for the project — a TV movie? a cable special? — refused to take shape. And then one morning, “it hit me like a thunderbolt. . . . It’s not meant to be a film. It’s live. She had a live connection. . . . It has to be a play.”
Taylor immersed herself in research, waiting two years before starting to write. She came to Washington, where Richards’s major fundraiser lived. She traveled to Texas five times, interviewing about 15 people during each five- or six-day visit.
She spoke with Cathy Bonner, a close friend of Richards’s since they met in the early 1970s. Bonner and Richards served together on the board of the nonprofit Foundation for Women’s Resources.
When she first spoke with Taylor, Bonner said, “it was a very strange, eerie feeling. I felt like she was channeling Ann.”
Still, she had some concerns. “Ann was a bigger-than-life personality, and there would be a tendency to make her a caricature. We really didn’t want her to end up being this cartoon character.
“But when we found out the level and the intensity of the research that [Taylor] was doing, it was clear to us that she was going to show this complex, interesting, authentic person with all the layers that Ann had.”
“It’s about her persona,” Taylor said. “It’s not at all about politics. . . . I wanted a three-dimensional, warts-and-all, colorful representation of her: heart, soul, mind.”
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You can tell a lot about a woman by the way she speaks.
For Taylor, a native of the Philadelphia area, this meant studying with a dialect coach to get Richards’s every inflection just right. Richards spoke with a twang, which she described as a “real Texas accent.”
Taylor’s voice is one with zero tolerance for put-on preciousness. Hers commands attention. She speaks in a brisk yet eloquent manner — she will not waste a word, nor stumble nervously over an “umm” or a misplaced “like.” It is startlingly authoritative.
She has the sort of voice needed to deliver the equally domineering and salacious lines that won her an Emmy during her guest stint on “The Practice,” or to convincingly portray an intimidating yet warm professor at Harvard Law School, as she did in “Legally Blonde.”(“I loved that movie,” Taylor said. “I catch pieces of it from time to time on television.”) The voice serves her quite well in her current gig as the mother in “Two and a Half Men,” a role that requires her insults to snap-crackle-pop off the screen with a cruelty that belies a deeply buried maternal instinct.
Taylor, like Richards, has perfect comedic timing. “She understands the anatomy of a joke better than anybody I’ve ever worked with,” said Benjamin Klein, the director of “Ann.”
Richards’s delivery was famously on display at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, where she gave the keynote address. It included one of her most-quoted zingers.
“Poor George,” Richards said, speaking of then-Vice President Bush. “He can’t help it.” Pause. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Then she smiled, deep pink lipstick framing two rows of teeth as white as her hair, which rose several inches above her head like whipped cream on a sundae.
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“I never had any intention to do any such project as this,” Taylor said, taking a last bite of her lunch. The day we spoke, “Ann” had never been performed outside Texas. Despite pressure to succeed beyond Richards’s back yard, Taylor exuded total calm.
“I’m not nervous,” she said. “I feel like Ann Richards is in charge of this whole deal, because everything that has happened about this play has been so astonishingly felicitous. I have to think someone is working on it, because it ain’t me.”
“Ann” played in Chicago to mostly positive reviews, heralding the strength of Taylor’s performance while acknowledging the play as more of a valentine than a clear-eyed analysis, and one that could benefit from being a bit shorter than its almost two-hour-20-minute running time. But passion and self-restraint rarely go together. Taylor is a diehard fan of Richards, and it shows.
“It’s a lovely memorial to Ann,” said Bonner, who saw the play in Texas. “To show that she was human, and that she could be vulnerable, that she was tough and hard to work for sometimes. It shows her commitment and her courage to do the right thing for the people of Texas, and that’s what she cared about most.
“I think it will teach the generations. . . . In today’s political world, maybe everyone will stop and think, ‘What would Ann do?’ ”
“I get a lot of cracks about my hair, mostly from men who don’t have any.”
“If you give us the chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
“Let me tell you that I am the only child of a very rough-talking father. So don’t be embarrassed about your language. I’ve either heard it or I can top it.”
When American Civil Liberties Union representatives came to her office to complain about a Nativity scene on the grounds of the Capitol: “You know, that’s probably as close as three wise men will ever get to the Texas Legislature, so why don’t we just let them be.”
“I’ve always said that in politics, your enemies can’t hurt you, but your friends will kill you.”
Dec. 17 - Jan. 15, Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, www.kennedy-center.org, 202-467-4600.