One-person shows are tricky things, demanding for both actor and audience. The playwright’s almost insurmountable challenge is to create a full-fledged drama with an elemental palette. If we’re lucky, we may end up with an astute character study or a gripping performance.
We are just lucky enough in the case of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, a tribute by two female journalists to the left-liberal columnist that premiered March 24 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, with Kathleen Turner in the starring role. (It runs through April 25.) The title reflects the work’s anecdotal origins, not entirely transcended in this production. The playwrights, the twin sisters Margaret Engel (director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation) and Allison Engel (director of communications at the University of Southern California), have skillfully woven much of Ivins’s own colorful language into a generally entertaining seventy-minute autobiographical monologue.
The raspy-voiced Turner, who knew the late journalist from progressive political circles, gives an energetic, fully committed performance that is still rough around the edges. And director David Esbjornson’s staging almost transforms the tale into something more: an elegy for our own expiring, or rapidly metamorphosing, profession.
The dramaturgical conceit of Red Hot Patriot is a hoary one: the flashback (and flash-forward) from a single eventful day-in-the-life to the life itself. In this case, we encounter a middle-aged Ivins, dressed not exactly to the nines in a blue denim shirt, grey pants, and red leather boots, sitting behind a newsroom desk. Her challenge is to write a column about her tyrannical, conservative, alcoholic father, a man absent until now from her work but a nettlesome presence in her life. Their conflicts, the play suggests, may have jumpstarted not just her own alcoholism and emotional avoidance, but also her famously irreverent skewering of authority figures—from Texas legislators and Republican presidents to editors at The New York Times.
Here is the seed of drama, but it never reaches full bloom. Ivins’s personal life is treated in a cursory way, with mention of two tragically aborted early romances, her attachment to a dog named Shit, and friendships with such Texas political figures as former governor Ann Richards. The narrative jumps backward, then forward, but remains essentially formless. The mood darkens, then lightens, then darkens again, aided by Russell Champa’s notable lighting design.
Born into country-club privilege and a dysfunctional family, Ivins embraced identification with the downtrodden, finding her voice as a co-editor of The Texas Observer, a syndicated political columnist, and the author of bestselling books such as Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? (1991). In the play, she observes and surmounts the blatant sexism of nearly all-male newsrooms, clashes fatally with editors at The New York Times (“mice training to be rats”), condemns the Iraq War, and comes up finally against an enemy—breast cancer—that she can’t defeat. (The three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Columbia J-School graduate died in 2007, at the age of sixty-two.)
Esbjornson, with John Arnone’s set of stacked newsroom desks and the crisp sound design of Rob Milburn, situates us in a recognizable but vanishing time. We don’t know the precise date as we watch (it turns out to be 1998). Yet the play is staged with apparently deliberate anachronism, almost as though we are watching The Front Page. At one point, the script references Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, a model for the role of wisecracking female journalist. Ivins is still using a typewriter. And for inspiration, she heads to the “morgue,” the now-ironic name for the all-but-defunct newspaper library.
With the snapping of what sound like flash cameras, we see projections of photographs that help conjure Ivins’s life. At times, the Associated Press teletype machine explodes with bells signaling an important story, and a copy boy who never speaks tears off pages that contain articles (such as a Times obituary of Elvis Presley) that Ivins wrote long ago. These devices are baffling and a bit clumsy, creating a slightly fantastical world that is at odds with Ivins’s own clear-eyed realism. But they do ably convey the impression that an era—and not just one sharp-talking progressive icon—has come and gone.
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