Two factors are necessary for the success of a one-person play. The central character must be compelling – a visionary, often a maverick, with a distinctive personality, and a fine-tuned sense of humor. And, the actor playing the role must possess the chops to pull it off. Jayne Atkinson is up to the challenge, nailing the persona of Ann Richards, the firebrand former governor of Texas known for her outspoken, brash manner who was, nonetheless, so embraced by voters that she won election as a Democrat in a solidly red state.
Kristen Van Ginhoven, artistic director of WAM Theatre in the Berkshires, approached Atkinson about directing a production of the play. After giving the offer some thought, Atkinson told Van Ginhoven she didn’t want to direct Ann, she wanted to be Ann. Following a short run in the Berkshires, in October, 2018, the play opened this week at Arena Stage. Once again, Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith’s timing is impeccable. In the run up to the 2020 presidential election, six women are competing to be the Democratic nominee. Richards, and others like her, helped to pave the way for these women to be considered serious candidates. Richards first came to public attention when as the Texas State Treasurer, she delivered the keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. She was elected governor in 1991.
The script by Holland Taylor, who also played the role on Broadway in 2013, opens with Richards behind a podium, addressing a college graduating class, explaining in her folksy manner how she went from being a mom and homemaker to the governor’s mansion in Austin. Wearing a faux Chanel white business suit (costume design by Jess Goldstein) and sporting Richards’ signature snow white bouffant (wig design by Paul Huntley), Atkinson mimics the governor’s appearance. But it’s the performance itself that draws us into the character. Atkinson has Richards’ Texas twang down, but it seems natural not overdone. While Richards’ father doted on her, constantly telling her she was smart, her mother “viewed her with a narrow eye.” That scrutiny, however, helped produce Richards’ tough skin.
She’s honest about the breakup of her marriage to civil rights activist Dave Richards, saying simply, they grew apart. Richards, who would ultimately die from esophageal cancer in 2006, when she was 73, was always forthright about her early life spent smoking and drinking too much. After an intervention by friends, she entered rehab. “So I like to think I broke a barrier for politicians with an addiction in their past,” she jokes. “And nowadays, hell, you can’t hardly even get into a primary unless you’ve done time in rehab.”
It was fortunate that Richards embraced sobriety before she became governor and confronted the pressures of being the state’s top elected official. The set, designed by Juliana Von Haubrich, transforms the stage into the governor’s office, a large executive desk dominating the space. Atkinson remains the sole presence, although we hear the voice of her assistant, Nancy Kohler (Julie White), who fields phone calls from individuals, the most prominent being President Bill Clinton. In the background are the sounds of a protest outside the governor’s mansion, demanding a pardon for a prisoner on death row. Although the man committed a heinous crime, Richards cites his horrific upbringing (as a child he was placed on a hot stove by his father), and she considers granting a stay. She complains to Nancy that the news is saying she didn’t take a call from Mother Teresa. “I was giving a speech! It’s not like I hung up on her,” she explains.
Atkinson is in constant motion, taking off her shoes, twisting the long cord on her desk phone as she circles her desk. Richards fields as many calls from her children as from dignitaries, a nod to how women, even those in top positions, must continue to juggle work and family. An upcoming holiday has Richards assigning each of her children to bring various dishes, all while smoothing over one son’s anger about a rigged game of charades at the last get together. (“No one would have been able to act out Rob Lowe’s latest sex tape,” she tells her daughter, Cecile.)
When Richards was 11, her father entered the Navy and the family moved to California. Attending a school that was desegregated gave her the first glimpse of racial disparity. And it gave her a compelling reason later on in life to run for governor. “Life is not fair,” she observes. “I learned that when I was 11 years old. Life is not fair. But government should be.”
Something that should echo during the 2020 campaign.
Photos by Margot Schulnan
Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven
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