'Red-Hot Patriot': Kathleen Turner tries on Molly Ivins for size

AUSTIN POWER: Kathleen Turner stars in "Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins."
AUSTIN POWER: Kathleen Turner stars in "Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins." (Barbara Johnston)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- A few days ago, a middle-aged man rattled Kathleen Turner with a compliment -- or, apparently, what he imagined to be one. Long fixated on the actress's drop-dead steamy performance in the 1981 movie "Body Heat," he sidled up to her to confess that while he was growing up, Turner was his Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Penélope Cruz rolled into one.

"He says to me, 'You haunted my teenage years, you were my ideal of the female,' " she recalls, a look of supreme disbelief crossing her face. "It's so weird! I thought to myself: Next year it will be, what, 30 years since the movie came out? I mean, COME ON!"

Turner is chortling in that smoky Jessica Rabbit voice of hers as she sits in the green room of the Philadelphia Theatre Company on the Avenue of the Arts here. She relates the encounter as if to illustrate how completely she has moved on from those impressions she left on screen as a young actress, how she's managed to emancipate herself time and again from the career expectations that others have tried to impose.

"I think I've always been lucky that I've been able to put blinders on, so that it never occurred to me to do what I'd already done. You know, I was offered 'Body Heat 2, 3, 4 and 5.' The truth is, after I do one kind of dramatic role, I tend to look for the opposite. The next thing I did was 'The Man With Two Brains'!"

That eternal quest for something new -- between those early films, after all, she performed flips into a pool as Titania in Arena Stage's 1981 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- has landed her for the moment in Center City Philadelphia, where she has been preparing for one of the more unusual transformations of her acting life.

It's one of the few times, in fact, that Turner, 55, is portraying a real person, the rambunctious Texas liberal Molly Ivins, in a new one-woman show about the late syndicated columnist's work and life that officially opens Wednesday.

An American character

"Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" is a 75-minute foray into the psyche of a sassy commentator perhaps most celebrated for a single word: "Shrub," the withering nickname she gave to George W. Bush, a politician who symbolized for her all that seemed wacky in the reward system of American politics.

Written by a pair of newspaperwomen -- Bethesda-based Margaret Engel, a former Washington Post staffer, and her twin sister Allison, communications director at the University of Southern California -- the play styles Ivins as a live-wire wit who, in her profane, folksy way juiced up the public discourse. (You may recall that the first of her books was titled, "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?") And she accomplished this from a perspective honed far from the Beltway.

"She was our Mark Twain," says Margaret Engel, an author and executive director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation in Washington, an organization that awards grants to journalists for investigative and research projects. "She really is the larger-than-life American character who comes around quite rarely, and had a way of seeing things with a clarity you don't find often."

Seated next to her sister in the theater company's bright lobby, Allison Engel adds: "I think, also, it's that she really was able to have this prescient national voice, from Austin, Texas."

"Not from the power corridor," Margaret chimes in.

Though working journalists are all but stock characters in movies and plays, their lives are hard to turn into compelling monologues: It's the people they cover who tend to supply the drama. The Engels, however, thought Ivins was a life force worth an audience's time.

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