The Broadway Blog sent contributor Lindsay B. Davis to Lincoln Center for a Texas treat. Lindsay is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.
At one point during the performance of Lincoln Center Theater’s ANN, a one-woman play written and performed by Emmy-nominated actress and first time playwright Holland Taylor, I turned to my fellow theatergoer and whispered, “I love her.” I no longer knew if I was referring to Taylor or the late ex-governor of Texas, Ann Richards, whom the actress portrays with warmth, intelligence and a physicality that captures the essence of her inspiration.
So it goes when an actress seamlessly gets out of the way to let a compelling character emerge. One doesn’t need to know anything about Ann Richards to enjoy ANN. It lives and breathes on its own as a solid work of theater, albeit a slightly uneven one as far as plot and storytelling goes. Familiar or not with the tough-talking, charming, witty political pioneer and champion of liberal values, feminism and the zingy retort, ANN satisfies beyond measure.
The play has a strong first act and immediately turns the audience into guests of a fictionalized commencement speech at a college in Texas. Taylor emerges in head to toe white, sporting Richards’s trademark coif, a power suit adorned with a diamond star brooch (representing not just the Lone Star state but the lucky star under which she believes to have been born), and smart heels. Through animated storytelling, we hear about Richards’s childhood in Waco, first foray into public service and office, various political inspirations and supporters, marriage to a civil rights lawyer, plus glimpses of her unapologetic descent into alcoholism and later, recovery.
Taylor almost dances across the stage as she entertains and tells jokes, some dirty, which she learned from her warm-hearted dad (Did you hear the one about the Terrier and Great Dane?). She speaks with the delight and skill of a seasoned cabaret artist or vaudevillian comedian. One can’t help but wonder if the real governor Richards was this entertaining but it doesn’t really matter. You’re too busy laughing to care.
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From a simple podium and mic, the set transitions into the governor’s office itself, beautifully designed and anchored center stage by a large, mahogany desk and landline phone, where Richards spent from 1991-1995 passionately championing her agenda. Taylor performs the theatrical feat of spending the latter part of act 1 and majority of act 2 on her office telephone or in conversation with her secretary, Nancy Kohlers (Julie White of The Little Dog Laughed and Heidi Chronicles) who is offstage and the only other voice (an audio recording) in the production besides Taylor’s. Whether chatting with the likes of Bill Clinton or calling out young schedulers with questionable Texan hair styles (“You might want to rethink those bangs!”) who try to put the breaks on her take-no-prisoners work ethic (“If we rest, we rust!”), the story moves as the urgency of these conversations increase.
While Taylor has tremendous versatility and skill, all of this phone work is where the play’s energy begins to drop off towards the middle of act 2. There is also some vagueness with respect to the plot — we know Richards is fighting to gain support for her decision to issue a stay in a capital murder case but that doesn’t work as a driving through line nor is it entirely clear how the matter is resolved. Current political issues resonate well with the audience — with her gun control position garnering applause — but this is not a highly political or didactic play. It is a very compelling one about an everywoman’s strength.
Taylor, best known for television roles on “Two and a Half Men”, “The Practice” and “Bosom Buddies” and her film work (Legally Blonde, The Truman Show, Romancing the Stone) does have roots in the theater (Breakfast with Les and Bess, Butley, The Cocktail Hour, The Unexpected Man). She appears incredibly at ease and powerful in front of a live audience. After four years researching the life of Ann Richards by way of reviewing transcripts, listening to video and audio interviews, and spending time with Richards’s family and former colleagues, nearly 90 percent of the words Taylor wrote for ANN are hers. The naturalness of her delivery reflects the closeness to the text she devised.
I don’t know the last time you watched a radically entertaining, 70-year-old woman perform on stage, uninterrupted, for close to two hours. It commands respect and wins your love. So too, does this production.
Here’s what the other critics are saying:
“To put it as the plain-talking Richards might, this one-dynamo show — Ms. Taylor is the lone cast member — is neither a shapely work of drama nor a deeply probing character study. But admirers of Richards probably won’t give a darn. She was a brightly shining political star and an inspiring figure during the years of her renown, and Ms. Taylor is essentially just giving this beloved dame one more chance to bask in the spotlight.” The New York Times
“ANN is most affecting when Taylor focuses on Richards’ personal challenges and joys, from her battles with alcoholism and cancer to her relationship with the adored father who provided her formidable confidence. “Daddy, you were right, I was smart,” she cheers at the end. “And I could do anything I wanted to!” We didn’t need a play to tell us that, but ANN, for all its shortcomings, makes a convincing case.” USA Today
“Before circling back to the commencement speech, a scene finds Richards reflecting on her death and starry memorial. It’s awkward and just pads a show that could stand to shed 10 minutes and the momentum-killing intermission. But Taylor is a pistol. She immerses herself deep into the role, conveying Richards’ big-as-Texas appeal. In the end, the star outshines the star vehicle.” NY Daily News