A political journalist once observed that “Ann Richards has walked through fire — and the fire lost,” referring to the woman’s improbable rise from “bomb-throwing” housewife to Democratic governor of Texas from 1990 to 1994. You know exactly what the pundit meant when you attend a performance of “Ann,” at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where Holland Taylor is bringing her back to life in a one-person show that the actor also wrote.
When the play had its world premiere in Galveston, Texas, in 2010, the audience actually gasped at the uncanny resemblance — the small stature, the blazing blue eyes, and, as Richards herself called it, the white spun “Republican hair” piled atop her head. What was even more dead-on was Taylor’s evocation of a tough, ambitious, and complex wife, mother, and politician who first trotted onto the national stage when she delivered a blisteringly wry keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention. Following her gubernatorial re-election defeat at the hands of George W. Bush, she wondered, as Taylor recounts in the show, “if my age-old fear was gonna come true and I’d end up in a trailer in my daughter Ellen’s driveway.” But, relocating to Manhattan, Richards enjoyed a second act as a popular lecturer until she died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 73.
ARTINFO’s Patrick Pacheco spoke with Taylor, best known for her feature roles in TV’s “Bosom Buddies” and “Two and Half Men,” about her return to Broadway in her “labor of love” after an absence of nearly three decades.
Why a play about Ann Richards?
It wasn’t a decision, it was a visitation. I had only met her once, at a lunch that [the columnist] Liz Smith had arranged, but I was just mesmerized by her. Ann had that impact on people, that tremendous force of positivism. So after she died, I had all this creativity burning a hole in my purse and a great desire to find out what had made you and I and a lot of other people so nuts about her. None of this was logical — I’d never written a play, I never thought it would end up on Broadway. Sometimes I still wonder, “What the fuck do I think I’m doing?”
Did you identify with her in any way?
I’m short [laughs]. Not really. She had this sunny side which I do not have. She was also extremely sociable. I’m fine among people but by instinct I’m a loner. She loved throwing parties, she was a great cook. I only recently made the discovery that she was very much like a favorite aunt I had who was magically upbeat and funny as hell like Ann.
Richards grew up in a time and age when there were few opportunities for women. Did anger or frustration fuel her ambition?
She was angry at inequity, especially racial inequity. She wanted to level the playing field for every one and that drove her life as a politico. If she walked into a room and she saw a shy person, an Asian, black, Hispanic, or jut plain old white person like her, she’d gravitate towards them. But she wasn’t heavy-handed about it or sentimental about it, and she was tough.
What do you mean?
When she was governor, she’d often nip over to the mansion for lunch and people would line up to see her on the walk from the Capitol. She’d wade into the crowd and there was a shy and skinny young black man who she drew out. He had been in jail and said to her, “I understand there’s a way to get it off my record, I want to make my life good.” And Ann stood with her hands on his chest and asked, “Are you on drugs?” “Do you drink a lot?” “Have you finished high school?” The young man answered “No.” She then told him, “Well, you go get your GED and you come back and we’re gonna talk.” She didn’t give him anything. She made him do something.
In the show you talk about her as a recovering alcoholic. Why’d she drink?
I think it took the sting away from her waning marriage, the stresses, not being strong enough to be all the things that she wanted to be at the time. She was also a party girl, she loved having a good time. But once she made up her mind [after a family intervention] to give up drinking, she dedicated herself to it. Many years later, as governor, she attended AA meetings in prison. They, of course, were private, but can you imagine some real shitty thug, not entirely lost, sitting next to a woman who stands up and says, “I’m Ann and I’m an alcoholic”? Can you imagine the effect on that guy?
Do you think her empathy for the “insulted and ignored,” as her chief of staff once put it, stemmed from how you characterize her parents in the show?
I’d only be hazarding a guess but in my Psych 101, her mother was critical to the point of cruelty, withholding and just never let up even when Ann was old. If she was going out to play bridge, her mother would say, “Why you doing that? You don’t play well.” Her father was a naturally joyful man and qualities of both parents stayed with her.
Richards could be as mean as she was encouraging?
Very much so. Mostly when she was maddened by work and not getting results. She was driven and demanding. She had a temper that could reduce her staff to tears. But it blew through her. They’d be lying in ruins and she’d say, “Let’s go have lunch.” She was a very complicated woman whose own feelings could easily be hurt.
What do you think Ann Richards would think of the play?
I think she’d laugh her ass off! She’d laugh for the appreciation of her own complexities, the contradictions, the gear changes and warring capacities. And the forgiveness. I think she’d appreciate our effort to get it right.
One last unrelated question: I know that you worked with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the film “Baby Mama.” How was that experience?
Just wonderful. I can’t believe how hard they work and that includes Lena Dunham and what she’s done with “Girls.” Tina and Amy are the same remarkable people they were when we worked together on the film. They were like puppies in a basket. Just so extremely playful. Tina was cooler, her demeanor was sly, always thinking, assessing, and checking out the situation. Amy had her heart on her sleeve and was all over the place with feeling. Like Ann.