Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 7, 2013
Ann Written by Holland Taylor. Directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein. Scenic design by Michael Fagin. Costume design by Julie Weiss. Lighting design by Matthew Richards. Sound design by Ken Huncovsky. Projection design by Zachary Borovay. Wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Holland Taylor.
Because that subject is Ann Richards, you might consider the matter a no-brainer. As both the second female governor in Texas's history and a Democrat, the outspoken grandmother who shot to political fame after giving the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention ought to have a fascinating story to tell. As Taylor has written her, it's difficult to know for sure.
Taylor, wrapped in a soft white skirt and jacket (the work of costume designer Julie Weiss) and wearing a puffy wig, unquestionably looks like Richards. And in the opening scene, when she begins giving the commencement address at what the Playbill describes as "an imaginary college in the middle of Texas," there's reason for hope. When she's perched at a podium and spouting no-nonsense bon mots to the students she sees as being most in need of her candor, or telling the bawdy jokes with which she's intimately comfortable, the precise ministrations of director Benjamin Endsley Klein suggest that both Taylor and Richards will be lively companions for the evening.
Both, alas, fall prey to the dustiness of biography. As soon as she's forced to abandon the caricature (however accurate) she's crafted of Richards, and present her as both a public figure and a person in three, full-color dimensions, the hope that those early sparks will ignite into theatrical flames evaporates almost immediately.
At least as Taylor presents the facts here, there was next to nothing noteworthy about either Richards's rise to power within her home state or the election that ultimately installed her in Austin. Her journey from county commissioner to state treasurer to governor is over in minutes, as are her bouts with alcoholism and divorce. If Taylor intended the absence of colorful characters or tension to highlight Richards's own lack of introspection, she achieved her goal, but in doing so she's also failed to generate any drama or even interest in the woman herself.
Taylor's intent, in fact, seems only to have shown her in the highest office in the state as early as possible. But once we arrive — well before the end of Act I — there's no juice to be found there, either. Planted behind a desk on Michael Fagin's stream-of-consciousness set, and spending most of the time barking into a telephone or shouting at her offstage secretary, Richards becomes no more real. The few identifiable targets of her attention — various members of her family, mulling over a stay of execution for a troubled murder — come across as half-hearted attempts to spice her up.
Several scenes that follow, including losing her re-election bid (to a curiously unidentified George W. Bush) and setting up a national office in New York City on September 11, 2001, likewise fail to humanize her. The only thing that comes close is her climactic, imaginary monologue about the glory of the State and the responsibility of the people to it. "The Government isn’t 'they!'", she roars. "The government is you! It is me, it is us! And sometimes 'us,' not at our very best. Public Servants work for you. You have the power to call ‘em out, and call ‘em down. You hire ‘em, you can fire ‘em! If they are racist, if they are sexist, if they are wrong you must call ‘em out!"
It's enough to whip the audience into a frenzy, and to hint at the heat that probably inspired Taylor in the first place. The actress finds in this speech a flawless blend of elegance and roughshod zeal that translates into an infectious portrayal of someone who believes to the core of her soul what she's shouting. The listless and monotonous 100 minutes that precede this scene fade away as, for the first time, the remarkable Richards comes into crystalline focus.
The rest of the time, Taylor with everything about Richards but her accent, including her primary responsibility of ingratiating her to us. The extent of what's lacking in Ann becomes most obvious in the governor's office scenes, when Richards is upstaged by someone we don't even see: her secretary Nancy, voiced by a recorded Julie White.
An expert performer in her own right, who won a Tony Award for her dynamic turn in The Little Dog Laughed, White knows how to elevate even the most unassuming lines to comedic perfection. At the performance I attended, her demonstration of this talent at one point earned by far the biggest audience reaction of the night — and justifiably so. She was being allowed to give full voice to the frustration and bemusement of working for Richards, filling in for all of us who could not speak for ourselves. Ann itself would be much more effective if Taylor were willing to let Richards do exactly the same thing.