Don’t Mess With Texas: Holland Taylor Takes on the Lone Star State’s Late Feisty Governor

‘I was thrown into this pirate ship, the Good Ship Ann’

Holland Taylor as Ann W. Richards in 'Ann.'

Holland Taylor as Ann W. Richards in ‘Ann.’

Holland Taylor has had it with these people who order “painfully dry vodka martinis.” Pa-lease! “First of all, that’s not a martini because a martini is gin,” she pointed out in a recent interview. “Not that I’m a person very opinionated about it, but the original ratio of gin to vermouth in a martini was one to three. Now, people swish it around in a glass, throw it out and call that a martini. The whole thing is the interaction of the vermouth with the gin. It’s a chemical interaction. When I taste a well-made martini, I think, ‘If I could just hold on to this taste forever, it’d be great.’”

If Ms. Taylor is in a sublime state of mind these days, that state is Texas. She’s playing the late, great governor of that state—Ann W. Richards—in a one-person show called Ann, which she herself concocted (her first play). It commences previews Feb. 18 for an opening at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre on March 7. Ms. Taylor, all 5-foot-4 of her, will be filling the Beaumont’s Texas-size stage by herself.

You might have taken Ms. Richards for a bourbon-and-branch-water sort of gal—but no, according to her Boswell: “Ann drank a vodka martini with a twist—she was not a purist like me—and, when she quit drinking, she did AA. It got to a point where even a martini wouldn’t do what a few beers used to do, so she quit of her own accord.”

Ms. Richards, a tiny terrier of a Texan, tore a hole in the Lone Star State. She was the only liberal in eons to hold the state’s top office and the first woman to get there on her own steam (thus disqualifying Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, who was twice elected Texas governor as a proxy for her impeached hubby, James “Pa” Ferguson).

The reign of terrier was short (1991-1995), scrappy and singular. She was defeated for re-election by George W. Bush, who avenged a crack she had made in her 1988 Democratic National Convention keynote address about his malapropping pop, then Reagan’s vice president. “Poor George, he can’t help it,” Ms. Richards lazily drawled. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

The line was written, and slipped to her, by Lily Tomlin’s comedy-writing partner, Jane Wagner, but you’ll not find it in Ann—primarily because Ms. Taylor wanted to keep things as apolitical as possible. Feminists on all fronts were forever spicing up Ms. Richards’s speeches with stinging zingers, and the other legendary Richards line is included: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” That came from Linda Ellerbee, who got it from a guy on a plane.

Governor Richards was a formidable, funny lady—qualities that Ms. Taylor exudes in spades. And they’re a pretty good match physically—sleek cheekbones topped with a Dairy Queen ’do that became a Richards trademark.

Ms. Taylor did meet her subject up close once, over lunch at Le Cirque, introduced through their mutual friend Liz Smith, the columnist. “It didn’t have much to do with my writing the play, though. It was just a grace note.” She regrets not pursuing the relationship and took Ms. Richards’s passing harder than she expected. From the grief came the play.

Researching Ann was a four-year immersion. She interviewed family, friends, foes, co-workers, political allies and enemies, anyone who had a story to tell about Dorothy Ann Willis—as Ann Richards started out in life—and a complicated, even contradictory, endlessly fascinating character began emerging.

“She had had a very criticizing kind of mother and a softie for a daddy who adored her,” said Ms. Taylor. “I got a picture of this duality in her life. She was a wonderful boss but a hard boss. Her secretaries, when she was governor, would go out to the lawn of the capitol and get some air, eat their little half-sandwich for lunch and cry. They were exhausted by the way she drove them and her expectations of them. Many of her staffers would tell funny, awful stories about working for her, and there’d be tears in their eyes because they loved her so much.”

The script, which ran 32 single-spaced pages, was tweaked and pared down during six tryout stops en route to Lincoln Center. “Lincoln Center wasn’t on our radar at all,” she said. “We’d been playing huge houses—the big Shubert in Chicago, the Eisenhower at the Kennedy Center, opera houses in Galveston and San Antonio—and we expected to be in a classic Broadway house, so, when Bob Boyett, our producer, called to tell me that we were going to Lincoln Center, I was speechless. When I did gather myself, I said, ‘Well, Ann deserves it.’”

Her performance in Ann will be the first time in almost three decades that Ms. Taylor has set foot on a Broadway stage. The last time was Feb. 22, 1983, the opening—and closing—night of Moose Murders. Frank Rich nailed it in his Times review: “From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen Moose Murders, and those who have not.”

The play did not stay dead, however. It rose again Jan. 30 waaaay off Broadway in the East Village, but critics shouted it off the stage again.

“I’ve blocked it out mostly as best I can,” Ms. Taylor admitted. “When I read the script, I realized right off it was a vanity piece. Originally, I was offered a different part, and, although I thought some of the dialogue was funny, I didn’t think it was a play, so I passed. Eventually, they got Eve Arden to star in the thing for Broadway.”

Ms. Arden soon recognized there was no comedy to be found in the piece, refused to take her curtain calls and bolted during early previews. “I had to learn the part and go on in seven days,” Ms. Taylor recalled. “I had one week’s rehearsal before performing it. We previewed it one night. Its misguidedness was Shakespearean, but things happened that were funny because they were so awful; all you could do was throw up your hands and surrender.”