By Grace Bennett
Before I get to Ann Richards– and Holland Taylor’s rollickin’ fun but also quite illuminating portrayal of the former governor of Texas–I would like to slip in how absolutely great it was to simply partake in a Lincoln Center summer evening at the spacious and famous Vivian Beaumont Theater. The last time I visited there, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, was some 20 or more years ago when I saw a wonderful production of the beloved Fiddler on the Roof. Well, many, many sunrises and sunsets later, I experienced a very different kind of, but still terrific, Broadway treat.
Ann, statuesque and striking in her all white, glittery gold buttoned suit and stand up white poufy hair, opens the production on a serious note…speaking to a college audience, a commencement speech I gathered, where she laments the shift from the industrial age to the information age… “computer controls which run the world, sweat on brow not required.” Her childhood in Waco, Texas, she tells us a tad forlorn, “was as simple as a crayon drawing.” It’s when she gets to talkin’ ‘bout her folks that Ann’s profoundly smart and sophisticated but altogether friendly wit bursts forth…a sense of humor, I pondered, that may have first formed as a coping mechanism growing up with an emotionally withholding mother…Trust me, I know that this is rather common. : -) “Mama was as hard as the nails that held that house together…”When I began to understand that I would never please my mother, that’s when it all began to get funny.” It was daddy who took her on fishing trips and instilled storytelling skills, confidence and maybe even a raunchy streak in his naturally curious daughter. “He had a knack for dirty jokes.” Still, Ann admits at the outset, she was “hardly groomed for greatness.”
She reminisces fondly of David Richards, her brilliant civil rights lawyer husband—their song was “Blue Velvet”—and his pivotal role in eventually encouraging and helping to launch her political career despite the early, more traditional years of thinking that “taking care of husband and child was my profession.” (They did eventually divorce.) She is transparent about her penchant for drinking quite heavily in those young mother years …describing herself wryly as “a poster child for functioning alcoholics everywhere.” At this point, I will refrain from sharing several of Taylor’s very best lines in the show, and the funny deadpanning too, both of which revolve around the alcoholism and her vivid description of how she knew she had crossed the line.
Soon enough, and for nearly the rest of the production, the setting shifts to the 1993 Texas Governor’s office and her desk where we observe a (pre social media!) classic working mom juggling act…as Ann hilariously works the telephone and a barrage of intercom messages between herself and her beleaguered, but healthfully assertive assistant “Nancy.” She is doing everything from trying to organize a family fishing trip weekend–who’s bringing or cooking or baking what–to ragging on her speechwriter “Suzanne” or taking a call from Bill Clinton, gushing over her favorite granddaughter Lilly to meeting the demands of her office including a painful decision over whether or not to grant a stay to a young man on death row (“even Mother Theresa leaned on me”)…or dealing with nuclear waste and the provisions in a treaty with New Mexico to protect the Rio Grande River. A dizzying “day in the life” of Ann Richards is successfully portrayed.
Ann’s struggle is clear too–an uphill battle lassoing in naysayers within a macho state to deal with daunting issues. It’s her charm and humor plus a hefty dose of her mom’s “hard as nails” legacy that the audience might correctly surmise get her through. All the while, she is effortlessly voicing her astute observations about political life and the role of government. “I had known life is not fair, but government should be,” that it “takes one person to run and quite another to actually govern” and for good measure, “that no matter what side you are on, the forces are always gathering to undo what you’ve done.”
And then it’s back to front stage and a more somber note with Ann describing her cancer struggle, her being as “strong as mustard gas,” the attention, memorial and love she received, including yet another call from Bill Clinton. “You just can’t get enough of me can you?” she asks our President neighbor.
By the production’s end, I marveled at how this marvelous 70-year-old actress managed to memorize two hours worth of script while also being in full command of the nuances of body language. It was positively HeculeAnn. Taylor, in the meantime, seemed as enamored of the standing ovation for her performance as Ann Richards was with serving the state of Texas. “You haven’t lived ‘till you’ve been Governor of Texas,” Taylor had noted. Well, I hadn’t “known Ann” till I watched Ms. Taylor capture her sassy self and spirit so divinely.