As “Ann” makes abundantly plain, Ann Richards’s greatest achievement was being Ann Richards. This article of faith propels Holland Taylor in her remarkably realistic embodiment of the late Texas governor, a passionate Democrat, savvy networker and, most important for this engaging if sugarcoated homage stopping at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, a folksy raconteur of the first rank.
“Ann,” written by Taylor — a face familiar from her many film and TV roles, especially on CBS’s “Two and a Half Men” — is not an account of an especially historically significant life. If some other shows in the monodrama category have by nature of their subjects (Mark Twain, Harry Truman, Emily Dickinson, Thurgood Marshall) seemed concise versions of multi-volume biographies, Taylor’s play, which had its formal opening Wednesday night, feels more like something on the scale of an admiring magazine profile.
Its limitation is that there’s not much political drama in this dramatic politician’s story: a one-term governorship, a speech at the 1988 Democratic convention with its starmaking zinger at the expense of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush (“He was born with a silver foot in his mouth!”). Her clever phraseology is more memorable than her deeds and, as a result, the piece doesn’t have a powerful context — at least not enough of one for the ambitious structure of two full acts.
What it does possess is Richards’s inimitable catalogue of sayings, marinated in Texas wryness, and Taylor’s expert delivery of them. “I have a lot of opinions,” Richards notes, speaking to the graduating class of a Texas college out of Taylor’s imagination. “Can you imagine if I were your mother-in-law? I could fix you up!” In Taylor’s put-on twang — pretty darn good to these Northern ears — the remarks sound funnier than they read. It also helps that the actress, wearing a handsome oyster-colored suit and the shocking-white bubble of a coiffure that columnist Molly Ivins once described as the governor’s “Republican hair,” even manages to replicate the devilish twinkle that always appeared to reside in the eyes of Richards, who died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 73.
“Ann” wants you more than anything else to savor the wit of this up-by-the-bootstraps politico, who began adulthood — she married at 19 — as an adoring wife and mother and reinvented herself by entering politics and ascending the ladder in her native state.
“I didn’t want my tombstone to read, ‘She kept a really clean house,’ ” Taylor’s Richards declares. If she hadn’t chosen politics, it seems, she would have had a fine career in comedy. An extended scene in “Ann” imagines Richards at her desk back in Austin in 1993, fielding and making calls to her aides, her grown children, even to her buddy, then-President Bill Clinton; her half of the calls are delightfully vinegary. As choreographed by director Benjamin Endsley Klein, the sequence is an opportunity to reveal how mastery of language can be a far more seductive political tool than control of message.
The show has dropped its original subtitle, “An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards,” although the affection is still readily apparent. Taylor is a fan, and as a result the closest you get to a dark side of Richards is her explosive temper, felt most woundingly by her staff. “Are you crying?” she inquires of a man at the other end of the phone whom she’s just reduced to Jell-O. Minutes later, the contrite governor is on the intercom, instructing another assistant to add the devastated aide’s name to a list of staffers on whom she’s bestowing cowboy boots.
“Ann,” in what the Kennedy Center is calling a “pre-Broadway engagement,” feels a bit slight, but Taylor nevertheless manages to make it fun. She stays very much in her element, and even a malfunction of a set piece on the evening I attended didn’t throw her. In the guise of Richards, she barked genially at a stagehand in the wings, and when that produced no results, she shrugged and gazed out as us, as if to say, a governor can’t fix everything.
“Ann” itself might be fixed, with both some skillful compression and perhaps a bit more foundation for why this life cries out for such treatment. In the final minutes of the play, Taylor’s Richards does give us a tantalizing taste of what drew her into the public arena. “Why,” she asks, “should your life be just about you?” “Ann” might feel like more than a compendium of the very funny things that rolled off Richards’s tongue if it dug a bit deeper into how specifically that question guided her.
written and performed by Holland Taylor. Directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein. Sets, Michael Fagin; costume, Julie Weiss; lighting, Matthew Richards; sound, Ken Huncovsky; projections, Zachary Borovay; wigs, Paul Huntley. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Jan. 15 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.