When the well-honed, snowy-thatched actress Holland Taylor strides onstage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater like a Texas tornado with her big hair, small ankles and gold Lone Star pin, catching the light from the center spot, on her chic two-piece white tailored suit, you think you are seeing a ghost. It’s a welcome ghost, warm and friendly as your own mother, but the feeling you get is still eerie. Here, right in front of you, is the iconic Texas governor Ann Richards, a housewife with liberal opinions and a big mouth who entered politics late, served only four years in office before the conservative Bush machine pushed her out, and went on to become one of the most revered voices in America and the world. Ann is that rarity in the American theater—a one-woman show that never lulls. Exhaustively researched, written and performed by the lovely, no-nonsense Ms. Taylor, it captures the total essence of a great lady who was always outspoken, but I don’t know by whom.
Ann begins and ends in the auditorium of a Texas college where she is delivering a commencement speech, then segues into various stages of her life with wisdom, humor, toughness and pathos until you know everything there is to know about one of the most dynamic women in American political history. By the time it ends, you know what Texans mean when they say “We got everything you need here. If you want something we don’t have, then you don’t need it anyway.”
Ann was not the first woman governor of Texas. Back in the 1920s, there was Ma Ferguson, who took over her husband’s office when he was sent to prison for selling pardons. But Ann was the first one to make so many international headlines that some folks thought she lived in the White House instead of the State House. She had convictions from the start. Her mama was so tough that in the middle of childbirth, she reached out and wrung the neck of a live chicken for dinner. Her daddy told her she was smart enough to be anything she wanted to be in life, and she proved him right. Mama gave her grit. Daddy gave her a passion for dirty jokes (she tells one) and a taste for politics. At an early age, they moved to California, where she rode a bus to school and lived in harmony with “a confetti of kids” of every color and ethnic background. She married civil rights lawyer David Richards at 19, had four children, and made a serious effort to be a perfect hostess, mother, wife, chauffeur, nurse, cook and female role player, adopting the motto “If we rest, we rust.” As her reputation for having a salty sense of humor grew (she once went to a costume party as a tampon), so did her passion for vodka martinis. After 20 years of marriage, she had become a pretty terrific drinker but wasn’t having much fun as a housewife. Intervention, rehab, life in the fast lane, divorce—she did it all.
And then the real Ann Richards emerged from the ashes—a divorced, white-haired lady Democrat, 10 years sober, making news as the keynote speaker at Bill Clinton’s 1988 Democratic convention, running for governor in a state that was macho, conservative and Republican—and winning the gubernatorial election with humor, heart and hubris.
The center section of the play follows her through one hectic day in office, barking orders to her offstage secretary, tirelessly kicking off her shoes and circling her desk while offering opinions on everything (“Barbara Jordan has too much sense to go on the Supreme Court”) and dispensing sound advice on Social Security and abortion. All the while, she takes endless phone calls with her customary high-spirited, bordello-flavored bawdiness—everyone from President Clinton (“Hi, kid—just can’t get enough of me, can you?”) to powerful movers and shakers (“He couldn’t organize a circle jerk”). She shuffles receptions, organizes staff luncheons and stays of execution, signs border treaties to protect the Rio Grande, juggles preparations for everything from a live Larry King interview to a pro-choice march to a weekend family barbecue with her scattered children. The play is not merely a catalog of Ann’s life. It’s two hours in the life of one of the busiest, most popular and fascinating governors in American history.
She failed to win a second term. Texas was changing, like much of the South, and many Texans were enraged when she signed a concealed-weapons veto—and George Bush never forgave her for her public quip that he “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” It was a black day for this yellow rose of Texas. But she picked herself up and moved on. “Life isn’t fair, but government should be.” The effect of her tenure was to change the state of Texas and cast the way its people saw each other and interpreted the law in a new light. And the voice of Ann Richards was not silenced.
She was 60, with no home, not much money, and a “questionable shelf-life expiration date” when she moved to New York, became a high-profile consultant on corporate boards, a fixture on TV talk shows and a public speaker whose presence at a podium guaranteed standing room only. In her 70s, she became one of the most popular women in the world until her death in 2006.
Ms. Taylor is a forceful, stunning tour guide through the terrain of Ann’s life. She has bombast and nuance, and is so riveting your mind refuses to wander. The author did not know the real Ann Richards, but she’s got the drawl down in marble. Sometimes it’s the drawl of their mutual friend Liz Smith, but it keeps the ballast going, like tennis balls at Wimbledon. I have no problem with the structure of the play, which leaps around in time, but my one small caveat is that in the governor’s-office middle section, there are too many telephone calls to keep track of who is on the other end of the line, and they drag on too long. Just when you want to return to the business of getting to know Ann Richards, the telephone rings again.
But in the end, all is forgiven. The anecdotes, public records, and interviews with family, business associates and friends pay off. Ann, carefully directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, imparts a wealth of information in an orderly, entertaining manner, about a leader who had values, self-control, dignity and admirable fearlessness and, in my opinion, was never on the wrong side of anything. She was funny and smart and candid, with integrity unequaled by any other Texas governor before or after. Best of all, she taught us all that government “is not they. It’s you … me … and us. We’re all of us in this together.” Do not miss this wonderful play. Onstage, as in life, she remains just a little bit in a class by herself.