Remember that time when in a prominent American election, the blustery male candidate who had no self-editing ability faced a female opponent he did not consider formidable, until voters had the final say?
We’re taking about the 1990 Texas gubernatorial race, of course.
Republican Clayton Williams had been far head in the polls, but after some misogynistic spewing about his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Ann Richards, she made history. (She was the second female governor of Texas, after Ma Ferguson in the 1920s.)
As parallel as that storyline is to the current presidential election, Holland Taylor’s one-woman play, Ann, doesn’t deal with the 1990 Texas election. In fact, it rarely mentions it.
In the play, which is having its area premiere at Stage West — and it is the first production anywhere not to star Taylor (it features local actress Linda Kay Leonard) — Ann is giving a commencement speech that nicely sums up her history and accomplishments, complete with drop-dead funny Texas-isms and Ann-isms (“Most of the guys who tease me about my hair don’t have any.”).
We then pay a visit to Richards working — juggling phone calls and making chitchat and deals with other prominent folks and family members — in her office in the Texas Capitol (set design by Kevin Brown, accented with lovely detail by props/set decor designer Lynn Lovett). The show closes by bookending the narrative with another speech, using a chair and a lectern.
It’s an odd structure that could probably be trimmed. Then again, it’s interesting to have a show about a well-known public figure that is not entirely filled with the character talking about herself.
Here, we see the workaday life of a female politician as she not only deals with other politicos (President Bill Clinton for one), lawyers and business people, but handles the stuff that many working women still make time for, such as advice for daughter Cecile (now of Planned Parenthood) and grandchildren.
Taylor wrote and developed the show and performed it around Central Texas in 2010, then took it to Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well as Broadway in 2013. She brought it back to Texas this summer at Austin’s Zach Scott theater.
Stage West is the perfect place to premiere Ann locally. Directed by Dana Schultes, who is now executive producer at Stage West, Ann fits into a history of works about strong, politically minded Texas women, including Molly Ivins and Barbara Jordan. The theater’s late founder, Jerry Russell, is also the father of former Fort Worth councilwoman and Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.
Decked out in her white power suit (costume by Aaron Patrick DeClerk) and that signature white wig (designed and maintained by Coy Covington), Leonard looks and sounds the part. Richards didn’t have as pronounced a Texas accent as Ivins, and her speech was commanding and declarative. Having seen Taylor in the role, it’s great to see Leonard making it her own — no small feat when you’re talking about a famous Texan who will be seen and judged by Texan audiences.
In less sure hands, it could be a mimic performance, but Leonard imbues it with herself while exuding the no-nonsense ballsiness of Richards. This woman understood the importance of shaking up the system; wanted to open government to every race, creed, religion, gender and sexual orientation; and even after serving as governor of a large state for one term, said that teaching was the hardest job she’d ever done.
It seemed like Ann Richards never stopped moving, and she doesn’t under Schultes’ direction either. In the office scene, Ann dances with the long phone cord (remember those?) and multitasks constantly. She rarely sits down. Even then, she doesn’t take a break.
After all, according to Richards, “If we rest, we rust.”