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In the one-woman show Red Hot Patriot, there is only one moment when Kathleen Turner breaks character and goes from embodying the liberal Texan columnist Molly Ivins to being herself—that is, a liberal entertainer performing before a crowd of presumably liberal-leaning theatergoers. Turner is halfway through the show, and her character is recounting a story about a former Texas secretary of state trying to round up the “rodeo clown” legislators in Austin. Suddenly, a giant photograph of a wry-smiling George W. Bush appears on the wall at the rear of the stage.
Turner tries to press on with her monologue, but the audience starts to guffaw. “Oh, fuck,” she says, dropping her only F-bomb of the show. “It’s him, isn’t it?”
Then the actress, who is sitting with her legs dangling from a newsroom desk, cracks a wide, knowing grin. She pauses, like she’s trying to outsmile the 43rd president. And then she’s back to being Ivins, spewing bon mots with a mouth full of vim and vinegar. And marbles.
It’s unfortunate about the marbles, but the best things about Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, is the kick-ass wit of Molly Ivins, who died of breast cancer in 2007 after a four-decade career in journalism. The script, by twin playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel, quotes heavily from Ivins’ columns, interviews, and speeches. There are many memorable lines, and those lines deserve to be read by an Oscar-nominated actress. For example, this denouncement of Bush: “They (say) he can speak Spanish. No one ever notices that he always says the same two sentences and then they cue the mariachis.”
The Engel sisters, who are accomplished writers but not career dramatists, draw from great material, but never find a perfect theatrical framework. The central conceit is that we’ve come upon Ivins at her workplace, on a day when, for the first time in her career, she plans to write a column about her father, “one of the toughest sons of bitches God ever made.” To procrastinate, she reminisces with the audience about her rough-and-tumble work life, her miserable family life, and her tragic love life.
The script employs several transitional gimmicks, including projected photos, cheesy music, and a silent copy boy delivering news bulletins. You never get bored, but you may get lost. Stories run together, and it’s sometimes difficult to decipher when Turner shifts from one tale to another. She speaks in a deep, throaty drawl, turning the “v” in The Texas Observer into a “b.” When she tries to sound like Ivins trying to sound like a disgruntled male Houston Chronicle editor, she’s unintelligible.
The physical character Turner has devised, however, is a captivating firecracker. She keeps her redboot-clad feet more than shoulder width apart, and her hands extended out inches from her hips, as if she was were ready to pull a Colt from a holster rather than launch a verbal assault. The show ends in a rush, with lines that have Turner alternating rapid-fire between the death of Ivins’ father, the insanity of politics, and the absurdity of cancer. So much wit and wisdom is packed into those three loaded topics, you’ll wish you had more time to hear about it. Ivins probably did, too.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins runs to Oct. 28 at Arena Stage.