They say everything is bigger in Texas. As a former Texan, I’ll go out on a limb and say that holds as true for its politics as it does for anything else. The state history of Texas borders upon sacred to its residents. Throw in some larger than life personalities and an occasional skeleton in the closet, and the Texan political stage makes for the some of the best theatre to be had. The ante was effectively upped in 1990 when female Democrat and former State Treasurer Ann Richards was elected by a narrow margin to fill the seat of Governor. A fireball of a character if ever there was one, Richards’ spirit burns on in Ann, Holland Taylor’s one-woman show now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
As the wise-cracking grand dame, Holland Taylor owns the stage. Whether she is leaning on the podium, hiking up her skirt, working the sides of the house, or meandering across the set in bare feet to sew a bit of fringe back upon the state flag, it feels almost as though Taylor is channeling her subject. Richards was known for her frank delivery and comedic timing, and Taylor exhibits the same here, launching into a bawdy joke one moment and daintily dabbing at her mouth with a napkin the next.
It is no small feat to hold an audience’s attention with a one-woman show, especially one that clocks in at just under two hours. Taylor, with the assistance of director Benjamin Endsley Klein, generally accomplishes that goal, but not without some hiccups. As playwright, Taylor takes license with time and space, bending them a bit to her will. Sometimes she takes her monologue directly to the audience as a graduation speaker; other times, location, time, and even audience are not always clear.
A large swath of the play takes place in the Governor’s office, and Taylor does her relationship building via a series of phone calls (Julie White offers a hilarious, deadpan performance over an intercom as Richards’ beleaguered office secretary). While much of what is revealed about Richards and her life is entertaining and enlightening, we occasionally lose Taylor in the intimacy of the phone call as a medium. The second act – particularly after Richards leaves office – feels a little unfocused, and does not seem to break any new ground left uncovered by the first. I could not help but think that the piece might be stronger if intermission was cut and the play was tightened up to 90 minutes.
Costume designer Julie Weiss intuits classic Richards, dressing Taylor in a boxy, cream-colored boucle suit with gold buttons, coordinating button earrings, a sparkly, lone star brooch, and two different pairs of eyeglass frames to reflect the passage of time. Wig designer Paul Huntley adds to the effect, supplying “Republican hair,” as Molly Ivins once coined Richards’ style.
In terms of scenic design, Michael Fagin creates an environment inviting enough for a statesman. Warm wooden tones grace floorboards, a podium, and a birdseye maple desk and credenza. Rich velvet curtains, flags, and ceremonial banners with government insignias are in full display. New environments are created for the actor as stage elements pop out of the floor on hydraulics or retract behind a giant screen.
Upon that screen, projection designer Zachary Borovay further sets the stage with 1940s black and white photography which slowly colorize, revealing rural Texas and the San Diego coast. He also utilizes computer graphics to suggest confetti falling upon the stage after Richards’ much-lauded keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention.
Additional texture is provided by lighting designer Matthew Richards, who aids in the shift of scene to scene with his gentle design, and seems to create a Manhattan office almost entirely out of light. Sound designer Ken Huncovsky wisely brings reverb to an empty auditorium, and punctuates a moment out on the Texas plains with a low whistle of wind.
The vehicle itself may not be perfect, but I am reminded that even Richards lost re-election to George W. Bush. Engaging, endearing, and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, Taylor gives a lovely, layered performance as Ann. “A friend told me I was born under a special star,” she drawls towards the end. Richards’ lone star was of the Texan variety. A Yankee by birth, Holland Taylor’s special star was perhaps a bit further north, but I suspect it to be no less charmed. Catch her performance, if you can.