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

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010; E06

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.

Margaret Engel says the idea dawned on her shortly after Ivins's death from breast cancer in 2007 (she was 62). It was not too long before she and Allison, who have collaborated on cookbooks and even overlapped for a spell on papers in Des Moines, were interviewing Ivins's friends and family, poring over her books, columns and speeches for the material that would turn this blunt-spoken personality into theater.

The additional challenge was that despite her high pundit profile -- for a brief time, she had a commentary spot on "60 Minutes" -- Ivins was not quite a household name. A possible solution, it seems, was to find one to play her.

"Kathleen was our first choice," Margaret Engel says, explaining that they got the script to Turner through a mutual friend of Allison's and the actress who was with Turner on the board of People for the American Way, a liberal First Amendment advocacy group.

After a workshop with Turner last summer at Arena Stage, the sisters went back to work on their script. Later, Sara Garonzik, the Philadelphia company's producing artistic director, agreed to shift another production and insert the show into her season, and David Esbjornson (Broadway's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?") was brought in to direct.

Takes one to know one

The salty, take-charge Turner does seem a good fit for the renegade spirit of Ivins, who spent a miserable interlude trying to fit in on the staff of the New York Times before bolting and re-upping in Texas journalism. On this morning, Turner is apparently not feeling that well -- a touch of bronchitis, the theater's staff reports. But she's taking the time to talk, anyway, before heading out to get the throat checked.

While she's proud, she says, of the major films she has made -- the romantic adventure "Romancing the Stone," the hitwoman comedy "Prizzi's Honor," the high-class tear-jerker "The Accidental Tourist" -- she had no illusions about how long Hollywood stardom would last.

"I always knew that as I grew older, the better roles would be onstage," says Turner, who started her college acting studies in Missouri and completed them at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. To great reviews, she's been on Broadway both as Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "I seem to have spent my career correcting Elizabeth Taylor's performances," she says with a laugh and a roll of her eyes, of two parts that Taylor immortalized on film.

The plays haven't all been that stellar: There was, for instance, her work as Mrs. Robinson in a wooden Broadway version of "The Graduate" that garnered a critical drubbing, and she toured the country for a while in a play based on the life of Tallulah Bankhead that never went to New York.

For "Red-Hot Patriot," she'll be dying her hair an Ivins shade of red, but she doesn't go in, she says, for blatant impersonation. As their activist viewpoints were pretty much in alignment, Turner and Ivins ran into each other from time to time at public events, once when Ivins was the keynote speaker at a People for the American Way function. And they forged a fleeting connection through an Ivins pal, former Texas governor Ann Richards, who in the last years of her life lived in an apartment in Turner's building in Manhattan.

"These two women would be howling and hooting in the lobby, waiting for the elevator," Turner says of them. One time, she says, the governor cajoled Turner into coming up to the apartment with them. Turner didn't attempt to compete. "I just listened to them, telling stories to each other."

Now, she's trying to summon some of that wicked storytelling energy. In a curious convergence, the actress Holland Taylor has been developing her own one-woman show, about Richards, that has its debut in Texas in May. Maybe the two shows should get together sometime? Turner looks dubious: She's got her hands full at the moment just dealing with one of them.

"I do want people to experience this as expressing who Molly was," the actress says. "I must be true to the essence of Molly. But it's my interpretation -- it's a combination of both of our spirits."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company