Comb through Jayne Atkinson’s IMDb page and you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon the résumé of a uniquely qualified presidential candidate. Who else in the congested 2020 field can say they’ve served as a Homeland Security official (“24”), the secretary of state (“House of Cards”) and the vice president of the United States (“Madam Secretary”)?
So it comes as no surprise that Atkinson would gravitate to the role of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards in the play “Ann,” which begins a monthlong run at Arena Stage on Thursday. While Richards died in 2006 at age 73, Atkinson sees the feisty feminist’s spirit alive and well in modern politics, particularly when she turns an eye to the race for the Democratic nomination for president.
“It was so interesting to me watching that second Democratic debate [last month], and how Kamala Harris came out swinging,” Atkinson says of the California senator, who confronted former Vice President Joe Biden about his record on racial issues. “That’s straight-up Ann Richards.”
“Ann” provides an intimate depiction of Richards, the glass ceiling-shattering Democrat who served as governor in deep red Texas from 1991 to 1995. Emmy winner Holland Taylor wrote and originally starred in the one-woman play, which premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2011 before a 2013 run on Broadway.
Atkinson took on the role at the WAM Theatre in Lenox, Mass., last fall before signing on for this new iteration, a co-production of Arena Stage and the Dallas Theater Center, where the show will debut in October.
“It’s an insane thing to do a one-woman show,” Atkinson says. “What kind of ego does a person have to have? Well, I’ll claim it, but it’s because, as [Richards] says, I know life isn’t fair. … I sort of see it as my civic duty to put myself in the line of fire onstage — which I love so much, but it’s much more up close and personal [than TV] — and have people hear her again.”
The play explores Richards’ progressive worldview while depicting her life balancing duties as a public servant and mother of four. In the midst of the #MeToo movement and a surge in female representation in Congress, Atkinson relished the idea of revisiting Richards’ legacy in a town where “everybody and their mother and brother from both sides of the aisle probably will be coming to see this show.”
“Watching a woman juggle hearth, home, government and relationships in office is a wonderful example to see right now,” Atkinson says. “The women’s movement is re-energized and bringing us back to the stage, where we should’ve been all that time ago when she was fighting.”
Although Atkinson acknowledges she isn’t perceived as a comedic actor, she jumped at the opportunity to channel Richards’ famously wry sense of humor. To help pin down Richards’ mannerisms and Texas twang, the 60-year-old actress went down a YouTube rabbit hole of interviews and speeches — most notably, the politician’s address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention that included the iconic quip, “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
“You get on into the Texas accent, and you just lay it out and you say things without a smile that are really funny, which she would do all the time,” Atkinson says. “I’m a funny woman, and nobody ever gets to see that because I play all of these hard-ass be-otches — I say that with pride.”
The role already has left a lasting impression on Atkinson, who says she’s partially basing her next TV character, a lawyer in the NBC drama series “Bluff City Law,” on Richards.
While recent musical biopics “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” aren’t exactly works one would expect to discuss alongside “Ann,” Atkinson draws parallels. Richards, in her mind, was a different breed of rock star — but one just as worthy of a retrospective.
“I think her voice is so important now for a whole new generation of people who don’t know who she was,” Atkinson says. “I love that, like Queen and Elton John, now we have Ann Richards.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Thu. through Aug. 11, $41-$95.