PASSION PLAY Tina Packer overcomes the production’s somewhat shapeless direction and proves an apt funnel for Molly Ivins’s salty wit and political passion.
The word "mollycoddle" was not invented with Molly Ivins in mind. The Texas-spitfire journalist — who, in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (through September 4), is among those keeping company with the Bard at Shakespeare & Company this summer — was a force to be reckoned with, in life as in politics. She was not, however, a Falstaffian force, which is how S&C founding artistic director Tina Packer plays her in the production now in Lenox. Under Jenna Ware's somewhat shapeless direction, the formidable Packer proves an apt funnel for Ivins's salty wit, as well as for the political passion of this daughter of privilege turned champion of the powerless and skewer of hacks and rascals. But the British-born performer seems to have one boot in the Texas dust, the other on the Shakespearean stage, with a variable accent that strides the in-between like a colossus.
Red Hot Patriot is the work of twin-sister journalists Margaret and Allison Engel, the former the head of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which awards journalism fellowships, the latter communications director for the University of Southern California. Inspired by the perennial Hal Holbrook vehicle Mark Twain Tonight, the two set out to turn Ivins into the next stage-door Sam Clemens. And they have had remarkable luck with the project, culled from Ivins's writings (which were syndicated in some 350 newspapers) and speeches, as well as from interviews and lore. The world premiere, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2010, starred Kathleen Turner applying her Jessica Rabbit rasp to such Ivins zingers as, opining of one Lone Star legislator, "If his IQ slipped any lower, we'd have to water him twice a day."
The success of any one-person show (and despite a few sprints onstage by a copy boy to yank pages from a wire-service machine, this is one) begins with its choice of subject. Pick a raconteur like Clemens or Gertrude Stein or Truman Capote and you're halfway there. It also helps to have a charismatic performer. So far, so good. And Red Hot Patriot begins promisingly at S&C, with Packer releasing her bucket of earth of a laugh into the dark before the lights come up on her, in strawberry-blonde wig and denims, her red boots propped up on a metal desk. "I'm writin'," she drawls. "This is what writin' looks like," she continues, explaining that the job is 75 percent cogitation, 15 percent typing, and 10 percent caffeine.
In this instance, Ivins is struggling with a column offering some sort of twisted filial homage to the rich, right-wing Republican father with whom she disagrees about almost everything. From there, she ambles, column to column rather than pillar to post, down memory lane, from writing Elvis Presley's obituary during a stint at the New York Times (which was so discombobulated by its flamboyant hire that it first banished her to a one-woman Rocky Mountain bureau, then fired her for describing a chicken-killing festival as a "gang pluck") to kicking the asses of crooked Texas pols to trying to save the nation from George W. Bush, whom she famously nicknamed "Shrub."
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