It's great to hear Ann Richards' voice again. True, the Democratic former Texas governor (1991-1995) has been dead for six years, but in Holland Taylor's Ann, now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Richards is as alive as ever. Taylor has got her down pat.
The stage is decorated like that of a large college auditorium, complete with lectern and hanging banners, an institutional effect that feels perfectly appropriate in the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Taylor enters the space wearing her best Ann Richards drag (pant-suit, glittery Texas "star" pin, white helmet hair) to the triumphant strains of "Chariots of Fire." Framed as a commencement address, the remainder of the evening feels very much like a political rally, with all the overwrought theatricality that comes with such a collective show of fervor.
Richards tells her story, dotted with clever anecdotes and witticism, occasionally accented by photos projected on the back scrim. From a poor girl in Texas, to a 19-year-old housewife, to a political activist/functioning alcoholic, Richards led a remarkably full life even before her ascension to the governor's mansion. For that harried period of her life however, we're given a closer look.
As if by magic, Michael Fagin's governor's office set emerges from behind the scrim. Positioned downstage of tall shuttered windows, a tasteful wooden desk is dominated by a massive phone, Taylor's co-star for the ensuing segment. She takes calls from her political aides, her children, and the President of the United States in a seamless succession. This counterpoint of motherly and gubernatorial duties reveals that the two jobs really aren't that dissimilar. Both require a general, a peacemaker, and a judge in equal measure. And, of course, an ability to multitask is essential.
Taylor is assisted in this segment by the excellent Julie White playing longtime Richards secretary, Nancy Kohler. While we never see her onstage, her "just-the-facts-ma'am" vocal presence is a perfect compliment to Taylor's flamboyant and frenzied portrayal of Richards.
Taylor's debut as a playwright, Ann does a lot to illuminate the limits of executive power in terms that are easy to understand: Taylor highlights the Johnny Frank Garrett case as one such example. Garrett was a mentally disturbed man raised in an abusive household. He was convicted of raping and killing an elderly nun, for which he was sentenced to death. At the urging of the other nuns at the victim's convent, Richards stayed the execution for thirty days, but did not have the authority to pardon Garrett as many anti-capital punishment activists assumed. So Garrett was eventually executed anyway, but Richards' stay won her no favors in a macho "red state" like Texas. She lost reelection, to George W. Bush.
Of course, in Manhattan, Richards plays a much friendlier crowd: a line about the necessity of gun control received uproarious applause. (Like I said, a political rally.) For the full two hours the audience was enthralled by Richards' folksy charm and it became clear that being in the presence of such a larger-than-life personality is much more the reason to buy a ticket than to submit oneself to an evening of politically challenging theater.
If you're the average New York theatergoer, you'll probably love Ann. If you're a social conservative who regularly attend Broadway plays, however, you might want to sit this one out.