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Holland Taylor as Ann Richards
Politics as theater? Oh, sure. We see that all the time. But politics as stand-up comedy? Ah, now that is much trickier territory – and it’s where the one-woman show Ann finds both its reason for being and its reason for faltering.
Playwright and star Holland Taylor delivers her take on the life of Texas politician Ann Richards with the same kind of punch-line polish she brings to her maternal role in the sitcom Two and a Half Men. The laughs are easy and plentiful, only rarely accompanying subjects that are too edgy for prime time. And Taylor never lets us see a Richards who isn’t either ready for or relishing her own prime time.
After all, it was a timeless television moment that shot Richards into the political stratosphere: the 1988 Democratic National Convention speech in which she slammed Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush for having been ”born with a silver foot in his mouth.” She was the Texas state treasurer then, and two years later would claim victory in her race for governor.
The framework for Ann is a college commencement address that allows her to recount those heady days, before the conceit is abandoned in favor of a re-creation of an afternoon in the governor’s office. And though Taylor tells us much about what happened to Richards before she got there – how she was a child of the Depression with an adoring father and a stern mother, how she was a conventional Texas housewife before making her way into politics, how she struggled with alcoholism, how she faced divorce from the husband she once idolized – it’s always from the perspective of a successful woman looking back, never from the perspective of a struggling woman, in the moment, confronting her greatest obstacles.
That’s not to say that the Richards we see in office isn’t facing challenges. Juggling a constantly ringing phone and buzzing intercom, she variously berates, cajoles, comforts and kisses up to her staff, her children, even President Bill Clinton himself. And she tackles sticky issues, such as a concealed weapons law and what steps to take as a controversial execution approaches. But there’s never any real question that she has power and control – and the uncanny ability to defuse any tense situation with a zippy quip, joke or zinger.
The thing is, I hungered to see Richards when she was falling apart, not just when she had it all together. But that simply isn’t the play that Taylor set out to create. She clearly wants Ann – now at the Kennedy Center in a pre-Broadway engagement – to flatter its subject as much as possible, in order to flatter its star equally so.
She also doesn’t want to leave any loose ends, apparently, and so she has Richards step back into speech mode to cover the years after she lost the governorship to George W. Bush, up to her 2006 death from cancer. It’s jarring how Richards fondly ”remembers” how well done and well attended her memorial services were, then is back delivering that commencement address she started the evening with. (Where is she – the University of the Other Side?)
But the opening night audience eagerly lapped it up till the end: Holland Taylor as Ann Richards, politics as theater, politics as stand-up, politics as entertainment. If that’s a winning ticket in Washington and beyond, then who knows how long Taylor may be able to take it and run with it.