Theater Review: The Red Hot Patriot

Yes, She Can Say That: At Arena, Molly Ivins’ Wit Lives On

Kathleen Turner as Molly Ivins. Photo: Mark Garvin

Molly Ivins was a hoot. For anyone with a sense of humor and love of irony—and for die-hard liberals in particular—her commentary was perhaps the only bright spot in the ill-fated presidency of George W. Bush, a man Ivins dubbed “Shrub.”

To create a 75-minute, one-woman tribute to Ivins’ wit, it would be enough to string together a pack of her truth-is-stranger-than-fiction Texas tales and biting one-liners and hire a competent actress with decent comic timing to deliver them to an appreciative crowd. But playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel didn’t stop there.

“Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” is a loving portrait infused with cultural, social, political and, most important, personal insights that bring Ivins to life. The playwrights showcase the words that made so many Americans fall in love with Ivins, but then they dig deeper to reveal what drove her from a comfortable upper-class upbringing and education at Smith to the hard-drinking, good-ole-boy world of journalism and political warfare. It begins and ends with her father, “the General,” an authoritarian, dyed-in-the-wool conservative who led an oil company and sparred with Ivins to his death.

It’s nothing short of miraculous that from the play’s first reading at an Arena Stage workshop three years ago, the Engel sisters called on Kathleen Turner to play this complicated woman—strong but vulnerable, brash but sensitive, and gripped by a classic love-hate relationship with her home state of Texas.

Turner captures the spirit of Ivins in her accent, her appearance, the cadence of her speech and even the lurching motion of her steps—no small feat, since at the height of Ivins’ popularity these traits frequently changed rather dramatically, especially during and after grueling bouts of breast cancer treatment. As she has said herself, Turner isn’t interested in doing an impersonation. In a beautifully modulated performance, she seamlessly morphs from swagger to contemplation to grief and rage, carrying the audience along to experience Ivins’ joys, frustrations and pain.

Ivins earned her journalistic stripes at the Texas Observer, carrying the torch for the state’s small but vocal liberal tradition, and The New York Times, where she covered nine Western states and penned a famous obituary for Elvis Presley. But her Texas roots pulled her back home; she returned to make her mark on the Dallas Times Herald with devastating critiques of the state legislature.

“The Austin Fun House,” Turner purrs. “I call it the ‘Lege,’ home of the laziest, most corrupt, most incompetent, most entertaining bunch of lawmakers on earth. Love at first sight. Heaven on a stick.” Thankfully, the Times Herald let Ivins write what she pleased—trumpeting the fact on billboards that read, “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?”

In navigating this biography, Turner masterfully segues from jokes about provoking politicians to reminiscences of personal heartbreak. “I suppose those little victories are a thin kind of blanket to cover me for not having a husband, kids, money ... pretty much all the things most people want,” Turner muses. “I did have Hank Holland. The first love of my life. He crashed his motorcycle. For a long time, I died there with him.”

Then, just as deftly, Turner pivots from Ivins’ fury over the senseless death of another beau in the Vietnam War right back to whimsical reflection. The war “gave me lifelong issues with rage,” she says, before adding with a chuckle, “Thank God for lifelong rage.” In less capable hands, this narrative could feel clumsy or jarring. In Turner’s, it seems as natural as a nice long heart-to-heart chat.

Of course, Turner didn’t craft this extraordinary work alone—but for a show like this, the sign of a great director is no sign of direction. David Esbjornson knows how to guide a terrific performance, one with movements, gestures and intonation that work so well they are imperceptible as theatrical conceits, doing nothing that might distract from the power of the play. And set designer John Arnone has created a set composed of desks and chairs stacked in an unruly pile, suggesting the upheaval produced by Ivins and the outspoken journalists who went before and knew how to shake things up.

But the Engel sisters left nothing to chance. Music, video images and even the concept of the set are carefully noted in their script. Perhaps their most memorable device is the periodic entrance of a copy boy who silently crosses the stage like a ghost, pulling the pages of Ivins’ past from an ancient AP wire.

The result, as the playwrights hoped, keeps Ivins’ full-throated voice alive. While introducing her to audiences who never had the pleasure of meeting her, the play makes her friends and fans miss her all the more.


Red Hot Patriot is playing at Arena Stage through October 28.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.  

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