How fitting that Molly Ivins should return to life backed by a theatrical setting of an old-time newsroom in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, written by twin-sister journalists Margaret Engel and Allison Engel. Dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, and a red wig, Karen MacDonald as Ivins strides the stage in the role of the late political columnist who was noted for her strong opinions and sense of humor. Ivins was a liberal in the once-Democratic, now very red state of Texas, and this 75-minute production by Lyric Stage Company brings to life the truths she spouted and the potshots she took in print at officials elected to uphold the American Constitution — whether they believed in its protections or not. "We lost the South because LBJ did the right thing about civil rights," according to Ivins in the play.
The show is less a drama than a conversational memoir, presenting milestones in Ivins' life, studded by people on her side: her strong-minded, conservative father ("He hated my world; I hated his world"), Governor Ann Richards and other pals, her dog, and the two men she loved and tragically lost. As for those she opposed, she saves her most cutting zingers for the Bushes, father and son, whom she nicknamed "Shrub." Her prescient warning to the audience, "The next time I tell you that someone named Bush should not be president, pay attention!" And that from a woman who wrote her final column in 2007, two weeks before dying of breast cancer. By then she was a freelance journalist with a column syndicated in 400 newspapers, after a 40-year career mostly in Texas publications, with time out for a six-year stint at the New York Times. "I was miserable at five times my previous salary," she says.
Under the direction of Courtney O'Connor, MacDonald moves through the space to vary the pace of the storytelling, stopping to point to photos projected over a back wall covered by newspaper clippings (projections by Jonathan Carr). When the rolling lineup of Texas state officials and legislators comes on, she takes aim with a mimed gun and shoots, catching one or another she wants to describe. She talks about six indicted politicians and a seventh shot to death by his wife, also sent to jail. Although she makes the Austin state house seem like a movie set from a Mel Brooks film, she had a deep love for her home state, despite the foibles of the white men who ran it.
As one of the most accomplished actors in town, MacDonald is an ideal choice to play Ivins, and she's more than capable of holding the stage on her own. She wastes no time in establishing her character's persona. Speaking in a Texas drawl directly to an audience, whom she treats as her readers, she belies Ivins' Smith College B.A. in history and her master's degree in journalism from Columbia University by ironic quips that come thick and fast, peppered with some good-ol'-boy cussing. (Jacob Athyal is cast as the silent assistant.) MacDonald makes Ivins into a sassy voice for humanity, but she does not neglect the personal side of a woman who was never married, was troubled by alcoholism, and was conflicted about her love-hate relationship with her father. The play begins on the morning after he died by his own hand, while she is writing a column to explain that she forgives him. MacDonald shifts the mood from amused sarcasm to a heart-felt sense of citizenship when she brings up her character's concern for the poor and disenfranchised Americans she sees around her.
Unfortunately, the ending transforms into a rushed polemic, changing Ivins into a scold giving a lecture about our rights and responsibilities, rather than a savvy, home-spun philosopher delivering an urgent message.
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