There are moments during Kathleen Turner’s stunning performance in Arena’s Stage current production of Red Hot Patriot when you feel as if the fearless, ass-kicking Texas journalist Molly Ivins (who died at 62 in 2007) is still with us. Turner struts the stage in jeans and red cowboy boots spewing words from Ivins’ columns and stream-of-conscious philosophy (skillfully crafted by playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel) that are so biting, so relevant they could have been written yesterday.
When Turner as Molly confronts the audience face-on near the end of the plays with the challenge: “All your life you have another job…You are a citizen…” I wondered if Molly Ivins hadn’t really been at the Democratic National Convention last week and heard the President speaking about “citizenship” and the obligation of all Americans to one another and future generations. “Take the money out of politics…” is another Ivins’ battle cry that rings as true today as she directed it at the infamous Texas state legislature, a hot-house of corruption, which she covered for most of her 40 years in journalism.
Though the playwrights, both well-respected former journalists, initially thought that this tribute to Molly Ivins, their first play, would be focused on a series of quotations and stories from Ivins’ writing, very much like Hal Holbrooke’s one-man show about the wit of Mark Twain. Red Hot Patriot, directed by David Esbjornson, who first staged Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy and has many Broadway credits, evolved into a more dramatic work. The play is structured around a column Ivins is trying to write about her father, a tough Texas oil executive and player in the kind of political games Ivins railed against. Father and daughter could not have been more different. Ivins, feet on her desk on a bare stage in the opening scene, is struck with a bad case of writer’s block and, as she talks to us about her father, “the general,” as she calls him, she reflects back on her own life — her battles with editors (“mice training to be rats…”), alcohol (“alcohol may not lead anywhere but it sure is the scenic route…”), cancer (“First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”) and mostly her fight against corruption and injustice wherever she found it (“our history has been one long struggle to make the constitution apply to everyone…”). Ivins worked for the Minneapolis Tribune, the Texas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and The New York Times as its Rocky Mountain bureau chief. She often rebelled against the authority of editors, as some friends observed, as a continuation of her rebellion against her father. The last years of her life she was a columnist based in Austin and syndicated in 400 newspapers nationwide. Humor was Molly’s weapon of choice, and the play is very funny, full of her stories about her dog (whom she named “Shit” so she would have an excuse to use the word) and President George W. Bush, whom she nicknamed “Shrub.” (“He was not bi-lingual; he was bi-ignorant.”)
There were men in Molly’s life (one beau was killed in Vietnam) but no marriage and no children, except for the scores of young people who crashed regularly on her sofa in pursuit of causes she supported. Molly’s story is punctuated with flashes that come across a news wire and are handed to her by a stiff, silent copyboy, and photographs projected on a large screen in the back of what appears to be a city room. But, when news comes across the wire that her father has died, we realize that Molly, too, is dead and the play is staged in some netherworld where she has found herself. The column about her father is completed, but she never had a chance to reconcile with him while he was alive and perhaps to forgive him for being so unyielding toward her. As she finds solace in her the retelling of her life’s story and the realization that “I led my own troops, Dad,” the play ends with an invitation for the audience to continue her work. Her metal desk and typewriter are piled on top of other desks in the back of room suggesting that not only that Molly has gone but her style of straight-shooting, seat-of-pants journalism may be gone as well.
The play, which opened in Philadelphia in 2010 and has also been staged in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, has been very well received with audiences lingering after performances in talk-backs, particularly in Los Angeles, to discuss the message of speaking up for injustice and consider trying to relish and enjoy the fight, as Ivins clearly did. The current production of Red Hot Patriot runs through September 30 and is the prequel to Arena Stage’s 2012-12 season, which will include two new American plays, Pulllman Porter Blues by Cheryl West (Nov. 23, 2012-Jan. 6, 2013) and Mary T. and Lizzy K., written and directed by Tazewell Thompson (March 15-April 28, 2013).
Pullman Porter Blues is set in the 1930’s on a train the night of the Joe Louis championship boxing match with three generations of African-American train porters working together and dealing with family expectations and an uncertain future. Seattle Repertory is co-producing the production, and it will open in Seattle the end of this month before coming to DC. Mary T. and Lizzy K is a play about the friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, a freed slave named Elizabeth Keckly, who was the most talented dress designer in the capital at the time. It is part of Arena’s stage’s American President Project, a new program to commission and produce plays about the presidents. The second commission in the President’s Project is already in the works, a new work by Larry Wright called Camp David focused on Jimmy Carter’s creation of the peace accords at Camp David in the 1970s.
“Arena Stage is focused on American plays and American artists – past, present and future,” said Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director. “We will always produce giants, such as Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady is on the schedule for this season, Nov. 2, 2012 – Jan. 6, 2013), as well as new works.”