Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins
Lyric Stage Company

Karen MacDonald
The mark of a quality acting performance is the ability to get lost in the portrayal of a character. The stakes are elevated when the character in question is not a fictional creation from a playwright's mind, but a real-life person who may be known to the audience. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston opens the new year with Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, which is an opportunity for the considerably talented Karen MacDonald to show that she is up to the challenge, even when she is under the weather. Her seasonal malady notwithstanding, MacDonald inhabits rather than impersonates the late, great Texas columnist whose folksy intellect provides a wellspring of witticisms and anecdotes that entertain and enlighten.

For the uninitiated, Ivins (who died of breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 62) was a populist fixture in the world of journalism for forty years, known for her humor and her rage, her wisdom and her common sense, and her zeal to speak for the powerless to the powerful. She was the one who nicknamed President George W. Bush "Shrub" and had a field day laboring in the newspaper trenches of the Lone Star State where, she tells us, "Six out of the last seven House speakers have been indicted for one thing or another, the exception being the one who was shot to death by his wife. She was indicted but not convicted, because in Texas, we recognize public service when we see it."

That's just a small sample of Ivins' style and one of the bits that may resonate with Massachusetts citizens, as we've had our share of nefarious legislative leaders. The beauty of this material is the (unfortunate) universality of the political shenanigans she details, as well as the uncanny foresight she exhibited regarding issues like campaign financing and grassroots organizing. Journalists and twin sisters Margaret Engel and Allison Engel used Ivins' own words for only about fifty percent of of the script, and although one would be hard-pressed to distinguish which lines they wrote in the style and attitude of their subject, I wonder why they opted not to harvest even more from her prolific archives. The strength of Red Hot Patriot (which premiered at Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2010 starring Kathleen Turner) is in Ivins' use of the language, both the what and the how, so the more that comes directly from the horse's mouth, the better.

The weakness of Red Hot Patriot is that it isn't much of a play, although Molly loosely shapes her autobiographical story by talking about her upbringing, her charged relationship with her father, major career points, and her illness. However, MacDonald is captivating as she commands the stage almost singlehandedly (Jacob Athyal makes occasional appearances as Helper, silently tearing bulletins from the AP wire machine to give to Molly), running the gamut of emotions from excitement to outrage, frustration, sadness and fear, among others, and ultimately showing Ivins' spunk. At times, the material flags, but MacDonald consistently finds a way to ignite the spark and keep it in the air. She is well-directed by Courtney O'Connor and they make good use of a wall of newspapers (scenic design by Katharine Burkhart) enhanced by Johnathan Carr's projections and Chris Brusberg's lighting. Sounds of the newsroom, music, and fireworks are provided by Chris Kurtz. Sarie Gessner costumes MacDonald casually in a chambray shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.

If Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins serves as a gateway for people to delve further into the writings of Ivins, that would be good. If that results in them accepting the responsibility of their other job, as Molly describes it ("You are a citizen"), that would be great. If everyone tries to live up to her legacy to be a pain in the ass to those in power, that would be priceless.

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, performances through January 31, 2015, at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or

Written by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, Directed by Courtney O'Connor; Scenic Design, Katharine Burkhart; Costume Design, Sarie Gessner; Lighting Design, Chris Brusberg; Sound Design, Chris Kurtz; Projection Design, Johnathan Carr; Assistant to the Director, Niccolo Walsh; Production Stage Manager, Natalie A. Lynch; Assistant Stage Manager, Maggie M. Jones

Cast: Karen MacDonald, Jacob Athyal

Photo: Mark S. Howard

- Nancy Grossman

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