If you were interested in politics and read national newspapers, magazines and books on current events in the years before 2007, you may have encountered the satire and wisdom of Molly Ivins. The rowdy, irreverent writer whose columns were syndicated in 350 papers is now the subject of a play starring Kathleen Turner, "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins," at Arena Stage.
Written by twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, who are also journalists, "Red Hot Patriot" is based on Ivins' writings, speeches and interviews with her friends and colleagues. It begins with Ivins trying to write about her father, with whom she had a strained relationship and was one of the few people she never wrote to or about during her life.
The play then spirals backward through Ivins' career, picking out the highlights of her professional and personal life: her first stint as an intern at the Houston Chronicle, her friendship with another maverick, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, her years at the New York Times, including her trip to Graceland to write Elvis Presley's obituary.
And it roughly documents her feelings during the Johnson years, the era of reaction to Johnson in Texas, the Vietnam War, the years of both Bush presidencies.
|'Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins'|
|Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW|
|When: Through Oct. 28|
|Info: $46 to $109; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org|
But "Red Hot Patriot" is not simply a historically accurate biographical tribute to Ivins. It's a recreation of the intense beliefs that drove her. Because this is the heart of the play, Kathleen Turner is an excellent choice to portray Ivins. Turner easily captures the blunt candor that identified Ivins, who loved nothing more than telling truth to power.
Although a great deal of the first part of the play is spent establishing Ivins' character and personality, it's in the play's second part that the Engels embed its power. And director David Esbjornson wisely imbues that second half with extra energy. When Turner as Ivins skewers dim politicians, the play and Turner are amusing. But when Turner as Ivins passionately takes on war, hypocrisy, greed and bigotry, the play and Turner become brilliant.
Played out on John Arnone's nearly bare stage, assisted occasionally by a Helper (Nicholas Yenson) who brings her Associated Press releases, "Red Hot Patriot" puts the emphasis right where it should be: on the text. Turner's references to people in Ivins' life are supported by photographs in Maya Ciarrocchi's projection design.
What ultimately makes "Red Hot Patriot" such a satisfying event is the realization that Ivins, although a dedicated liberal, was not just talking along party lines. What she was dedicated to her whole life was America, its Constitution and freedoms. Turner's moving performance makes that abundantly clear.