Monday, March 18, 2013
Like most people, I first heard of Ann Richards, the late one-term governor of Texas, when she gave the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and referred to Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush as having been born with a silver foot in his mouth.
It was a hilarious remark from the salty, white-haired politician and yet it isn’t uttered in Ann, the one-woman biographical play written and performed by Holland Taylor. This is unfortunate because the show, now at the Vivian Beaumont Theater under the direction of Benjamin Endsley Klein, is in serious need of humor.
Richards, who died in 2006, was a colorful character, and certainly, as her stage persona tells us, an unlikely person to win the governorship in good-old-boy Texas in 1990, being that she was a woman, a divorced woman, a recovering alcoholic woman and a Democratic woman.
“I was not on anybody’s list of a public servant,” she says, recounting her start in elective office as a county commissioner.
Taylor had been fascinated by Richards for a long time, enough to spend four years researching, interviewing, writing and developing this two-hour piece. It’s clear she did much work and her portrayal seems real, but I just felt I was stuck in the presence of a colossal bore who didn’t know when to shut up.
As I was walking home I thought of Calvin Trillin’s description of the politicians on the Sunday morning talk shows; he referred to them as “sabbath gas bags.” That’s what I felt I was watching, only I couldn’t change the channel or turn off the TV.
This shouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve been a political reporter and a campaign press secretary and know from those experiences that politicians are rarely pleasant company, being as self-involved as most are. It’s much more fun, though, to cover politics and enjoy witnessing the fools those people make of themselves; it’s much harder to work in politics and have to clean up the foolishness.
Ann begins with Richards at a podium giving a commencement address at an imaginary college in Texas (sets by Michael Fagin). From this devise she is able to share her life’s story -- the only child of hardworking, uneducated parents, growing up during the Depression in rural Texas, marriage at 19 to a man she loved who would become a civil rights lawyer, domestic life as a mother of four, her drinking, divorce, getting sober and public life as a politician.
The podium gives way to the governor’s office as we witness her juggling her harried work life -- phone call from Bill Clinton, steering her children’s lives, keeping her unseen staff hopping. (Julie White is heard as her assistant in voiceovers.)
With her white hair (wig design by Paul Huntley) and white suit (costumes by Julie Weiss), it’s easy to imagine her going to a costume party as a tampon, as she delights in telling us she did. That rather vulgar image stuck in my mind. Not much else has.