Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see John's review of Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
If Americans have learned anything over the past 13 years, it's that the plain-talk, folksy humor of a Texan has appeal to large numbers of the populace, what with one U.S. President elected largely on that charm and a current candidate trading on it in hopes of winning the Republican nomination. When Ann Richards, then Texas' State Treasurer, delivered the keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, her easygoing Texas earthiness and sense of humor won her instant stardomparticularly among those sympathetic to her observation that then-President George H. W. Bush (a Texas resident but a New England Yankee at heart) was "born with a silver foot in his mouth." She was elected Governor of Texas two years later and served one term before losing re-election to the son of the so-called silver-footed President.
Though Richards' political affiliation was with the Democratic Party, and her national fame derived from a speech at its convention, Holland Taylor's play Ann is not partisan. In fact, the family Bush is mentioned neither in name nor in fact. Taylor, the Emmy-award winning actress, instead has focused the one-woman play which she performs as well as having authored, on a more intimate and personal view of Richards. She captures the Governor's values and ideals, to be sure, but is more concerned with showing the personal strength and humor Richards maintained through the challenges of great responsibility as governor and in holding together a family of four adult children following her divorce from David Richards.
We have to get through a long and unnecessary first scene to see it, though. After a brief video clip of Richards' 1988 Democratic Convention speech, Taylor gives us a Richards commencement speech at a fictitious collegepresumably some time after she's left the governorship. This is a device to deliver some basic biographical background, but the Richards addressing the supposed graduates is far less colorful than we see in the body of the play which follows. There, she's in the Governor's office on a day in 1993 (the year before she would lose re-election), and we follow her balancing the demands of the media, dealing with less-than-perfectly competent staff, juggling phone calls from her children and President Bill Clinton, managing travel schedules, and wrestling with a decision whether or not to grant a stay of execution to a convicted murder facing execution at the end of the day. It's in this section that the play and Taylor's portrayal of Richards come alive.
On Michael Fagin's detailed set, Taylor shows how the 60-year-old Richards' energy, humor drive kept her going. Taylor pivots effortlessly from the public persona in phone calls to the president and the media, to fatigue over the weight of the responsibility and the anguish of having a life or death decision in her hands. She is, as the show's advertising claims, "tough as nails," but the heart and vulnerability beneath come through in Ms. Taylor's masterful performance as well.
Taylor has written (or shall we say documented?) a wonderful character and fully inhabits her. The next order of business for this piece with Broadway ambitions (Bob Boyett is its producer) is to edit it down and give it an arc. It's currently in two acts, with a ten-minute intermission for Ms. Richards' to take a "bathroom break" (during which, she reports after we've returned to our seats, she was greeted by a visiting Girl Scout troop while exiting a stall). After her day in the office winds down (with the passage of time shown through Matthew Richards' lighting design), we get several more scenes covering her life after she left office, and even speaking to us from the after-life, before confusingly returning to the commencement speech so to provide a bookend to this framing device. It could be a more satisfying play without anything but the long scenes in the office. Ms. Holland is always fun to watch, and the two hours and fifteen minutes, though more than is really expected for a one-person show, wouldn't seem like too much if Taylor and director Benjamin Endsley Klein gave the audience a better roadmap for the story. The decision of whether or not to grant the stay of execution seems to be the crisis that makes this day different from any other, and it provides some dramatic tension, but we're not told what she decided or what impact it may have had on her political career.
All the elements for a sensational show are here, though, and Ms. Taylor already has the character down cold. All Ann needs is the sort of tough-love editing the real Ms. Richards would have been happy to provide.
Ann will play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 West Monroe Street, Chicago, through December 4, 2011. Tickets available through all Broadway in Chicago ticket outlets, or online at www.broadwayinchicago.com.