In a more just universe, Jayne Atkinson would be a household name. In this one, we’ll simply have to settle for a more rarefied appreciation of her superb skills — on display at the moment at Arena Stage, as the late Texas governor Ann Richards, in the delectable bio-comedy “Ann.”
Atkinson is a New York stage veteran and seen recently on Netflix’s “House of Cards” as a malleable Cabinet member. An aura of polish, warmth and self-assurance always surrounds her, which helps explain why she often plays women comfortable with power. In “Ann” — Holland Taylor’s wry valentine to the lovably irascible Democrat from the Lone Star State, best known for declaring that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush “was born with a silver foot in his mouth” — Atkinson gets to let loose in a variation on this assignment. And at key interludes, her exceptional comic timing makes it a bona fide hoot.
Taylor wrote the one-woman show for herself and performed it in an early incarnation at the Kennedy Center back in 2011. The two-act play’s hybrid format is a bit awkward, as it segues from a fairly standard-issue dramatization of a Texas commencement address to a funny extended scene in the governor’s office, as the chief executive juggles myriad tasks and calls. It’s in the office that “Ann” really finds its voice. We could do with less of the expository elements of the speech that frames the evening, because as skillful as Richards was as a raconteur, the governor in flustered, administrative high dudgeon is that much more entertaining.
Richards was one of the most colorful characters to emerge in Democratic politics in the late 20th century, and it was a bit of a miracle that she was elected governor of deep-red Texas in 1990. (She was defeated for reelection and died of cancer in 2006, at 73.) As “Ann” makes plain, though, her rise was by no means an act of God. She earned her place in the political ecosystem — by force of character, experience and smarts. In other words, by being uniquely Ann Richards.
Taylor seasons “Ann” with Richards’s aphorisms: “Life isn’t fair,” she says, “but government should be.” A great line. She had a way with zingers: The “silver foot” insult resides in the annals of unforgettable moments in political convention oratory. So unedited was she that you mourn her absence especially acutely now, for her voice would surely help cut through the political hypocrisies and calamities we’re living through.
In a white suit matching a coifed crown of alabaster-white hair — “what Molly Ivins called ‘Republican hair,’ ” she says — Atkinson takes charge of the Kreeger Theater stage as if she were in command of a battalion. No one found more joy in the limelight than Richards, and the actress embodies that glee with an infectious élan. A performance element even comes to the fore in the scene of Richards alone at her desk, jousting over the intercom with her assistant (voiced by New York stage actress Julie White). On the basis of withering phone tantrums, including one in which she reduces a young aide to tears, the question of whether she was a joy to work for is certainly debatable.
Taylor occasionally applies a bit too much sugar to this affectionate political soufflé, but in director Kristen van Ginhoven’s taut and handsome production, you forgive the textual excesses. As a matter of fact, “Ann” is a more bracing experience now than it was in 2011. Maybe simply because we could use Ann now more than ever.
Ann, by Holland Taylor. Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven. Set, Juliana von Haubrich; costume, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Andi Lyons; sound, M.L. Dogg; wig, Paul Huntley. About 2 hours. $56-$115. Through Aug. 11 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.