Faux-folksy columnist Molly Ivins (1944-2007) and Ann Richards (1933-2006), the single-term Democratic governor who lost her 1994 bid for reelection to George W. Bush, rank as progressives’ favorite dead Texans. It was perhaps inevitable, given the political leanings of most theater audiences, that each should be the subject of a touring one-woman impersonation show, running nearly simultaneously. In Washington, where I live, no sooner had Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards, starring Hollywood veteran Holland Taylor, closed and moved on than Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, starring the better-known Hollywood veteran Kathleen Turner, arrived in town to complete the homage-athon.
Both plays have drawn sellout audiences. I was able to grab the very last matinee seat in a packed house at Arena Stage to watch Turner, attired in jeans and cowboy boots, channel Ivins in the 75-minute autobiographical monologue that is Red Hot Patriot.
The play confirmed what I had long suspected about Ivins: The down-home twanging Texas two-stepping in her syndicated columns amounted to so many cowpies. She wasn’t even born in Texas, but in California. She grew up in River Oaks, the fancy, moss-draped Houston neighborhood where George H. W. Bush now lives. (The Ivinses, like the Bushes in pre-political days, were oil people.) She went to Smith, with a junior year in Paris, and then (although Patriot leaves this out) Columbia Journalism School. In short, Molly Ivins was a limousine liberal.
The hard-drinking, hard-smoking part of her print persona was real enough (the play hints at a juice problem), but the good ol’ gal/populist she played both inside and outside the newsroom was a carefully constructed artifice. She might have named her dog Shit and walked around barefoot in the office during her six-year stint at the New York Times, but it wasn’t because that’s how they did things back in River Oaks.
Those with fond memories of the sultry Kathleen Turner in Body Heat may be surprised at the thickness that has grown like tree rings around her middle over the past 30-odd years. In this she resembles Ivins, a dazzlingly pretty young woman with a big Cupid’s bow smile (shown in photos of her projected onto the stage backdrop) who in midlife came to resemble a Texas longhorn, except without the horns. Still, Turner remains a superb actress, and under the direction of David Esbjornson, she works like the pro that she is to invest her stage-Ivins with charm and even pathos, capturing an inner loneliness mostly hidden by a carapace of wisecracking and political grandstanding. I was almost tempted—but not quite—to reward Turner’s A-grade effort by joining in the standing ovation that she received when her 75 minutes were up.
The problem is the material. The playwrights are twin-sister newspaper reporters Margaret (formerly of the Washington Post) and Allison (formerly of the San Jose Mercury News) Engel, who worship Ivins’s memory—unfortunately, because they worshipfully turn her into a stock-issue leftist-feminist battling against “inequality, poverty, sexism, and racism” (their dreary words in an interview) instead of a living, breathing human being. They used as their main source material Ivins’s own columns, stitching key quotations together to build a rickety plot whose few twists you can spot from a mile away: Ivins hated her overbearing, Republican-voting father, who drove her to ideological rebellion; but then, lo, she realized as she worked his obituary into a column, that she was exactly like him! What a surprise!
Ivins could be very funny when she wanted to be, especially when her target was the Texas state legislature (one solon said, “I am filled with humidity”—really!), although it must be said that all state legislatures, not just Texas’s, are barrels of slow-swimming fish for humorists. She claimed to have been fired by the New York Times after she, as Rocky Mountain bureau chief, had described a community chicken slaughter in rural New Mexico as a “gang-pluck.” (I find this story hard to believe; don’t New York Times reporters use double-entendres to poke fun at their perceived inferiors all the time?)
But Ivins was often simply tedious and bombastic. How many times can you refer to George W. Bush in print as “Shrub” and still get a laugh? One time? Zero times? Maybe it was the Engel sisters’ ham-handed choice of Ivins quotations, or maybe it was an object lesson in the pitfalls of trying to make a play out of political polemic, but I got tired of the pile-ons of such didacticisms as: “I thought that jokes kept the outrage alive—but maybe they keep it at arm’s length,” and: “The Founding Fathers left out poor people and black people and gay people and female people.”
This latter line—maybe it was supposed to be the “patriot” part of “red-hot patriot”—drew a round of applause from the Arena Stage audience. (This was an audience that also booed every time a photo of Bush appeared on the screen behind Turner.) But by then I was just plain bored. I was thinking, Let’s see, she’s trashed Dubya. She’s trashed H. Dubya. She’s paid her regards to Ann Richards (“Oh, Lord, I loved her!”). This thing has got to end soon.
End it did, because Ivins succumbed to breast cancer at 62, after a gruesome eight-year battle. But the Engel sisters couldn’t help turning even her sad and untimely death into an occasion for a Tom Joad I’ll-be-everywhere exercise in rhetoric, delivered by Turner: “My legacy will be helping people be a pain in the ass to those in power.”
Even Molly Ivins deserved to be more than an ideological cardboard cutout. She was a complicated figure who liked to hang around men, drinking them under the table if need be. She might have detested her Republican father because that’s what Southwestern girls who went to Seven Sisters colleges did. But she yearned for the high-testosterone masculinity that he represented. Of the two boyfriends she had in her youth (she never married), one died in a motorcycle accident and the other was killed in combat in Vietnam. She liked to report on (and be photographed with) the Hells Angels, and heaven knows what she thought of the metrosexuals who staffed the newsrooms where she worked.
So Molly Ivins became something of a masculine figure herself: brusque, obnoxious, aggressively outrageous, with a fishwife mouth—all traits that masked her essential aloneness.
Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.