Given the choice, Americans of all political stripes generally prefer their leaders not to have been groomed for greatness, nor to find their greatest comfort in briefing papers or bankers. A history involving hard work and the land — the tougher, the better — is preferred, as is the ability not just to be at ease with all different kinds of folks, but, yet more crucially, to know how to make ordinary people feel good about themselves.
Those qualities are, of course, proving elusive in today's crop of politicians, which perhaps accounts for the pervasive current sense that we do not really know for what, or for whom, our leaders stand. But the late Ann Richards, who was elected governor of surely the most macho and arguably the most conservative state in the union despite being female, a divorcee, a sobered-up alcoholic, and a liberal feminist to boot, was clearly an authentic pioneer-woman with appeal on both sides of the aisle. And in the best moments of Holland Taylor's new, self-penned Broadway-aimed show, “Ann,” you find yourself sitting there wondering — heck, agonizing over — why the political process does not spit out more candidates whose connection to ordinary Americans is unassailable by ideology, money or ceremony, and who just live their lives with spirit, fortitude and a darn good sense of humor.
“A funny woman is tricky in politics, you know,” says Taylor's knowing Richards, delivering the graduation speech at an imaginary Texan college that serves as the frame for a solo show that will flash back to the woman everyone called Ann in gubernatorial action. It's an interesting line, not least because there are two funny women in play here. There is Richards, whose barbed repertoire was formidable and yet who was rejected by the voters of Texas after just one term, proving her own point. And there is Taylor, who is best known for her work in such TV sitcoms as “Bosom Buddies” and, most recently, “Two and a Half Men,” a show where the shenanigans must have led her to wish that Richards would come back to life and give Charlie Sheen a tongue-lashing, before putting her boot on his head.
Those (and other) prime-time amusements may have paid Taylor's bills and even given her the visibility that makes this project possible, but they did not challenge her full array of acting talents. “Ann,” clearly, is a labor of love and this is a bravura solo performance that is closely observed, accurately dispensed, clearly attendant to every authentic detail and wrapped up with an innate sense of her woman's indomitable spirit. It's a formidable piece of acting that's never intimidating or pretentious. Just very enjoyable to watch.
A copycat couldn't play Richards, even though Taylor and her designers (Julie Weiss does costumes; Paul Huntley came up with a precisely wigged re-creation of what the newspaper columnist and Richards fan Molly Ivins' famously called her “Republican hair”) have come up with the requisite uncanny resemblance. Taylor's main achievement here is the way she captures the essence of a woman who was, perhaps above all else, a big talker. “Ann” is not quite a hagiography — we do get to see Richards bark at a few staffers, generally drive a few unseen folks crazy and engage in some navel-gazing about her own limitations — but it is demonstrably the work of a fervent admirer. Richards' famous electoral defeat in 1994 at the hands of George W. Bush is brushed past, perhaps because Taylor is trying to avoid getting trapped in partisan politics, but also because the show is invested in Richards' transcendence.
To a fault, at this juncture. Like all else in Richards' remarkable life, transcendence has to be earned from the quotidian. And when you're doing Richards, it's not a good idea to try and stay above the fray.
“Ann” has a few structural problems, notably late in the second act when the piece ceases to be present and dramatic and gets trapped in repetitive summation and truisms. The catharsis we seek is not fully forthcoming. Nor is a fully satisfying revelation of why Richards' ilk is so hard to hunt down.
Taylor and her director, Benjamin Endsley Klein, and fine designer, Michael Fagin, make an effective transition from that framing speech to the show's centerpiece of Richards sitting in her office, working the many phone lines, kicking her heels on and off, bantering with her secretary Nancy Kohler (voiced on tape by Julie White) and fussing with the tassel of an all-important flag. But they haven't yet solved how to eventually get us back to where we started. We end up both with Richards talking to us from the grave — a heck of a graduation speech but a device that flies in the face of her feet-on-the-ground persona — and a protracted, much less interesting scene involving a post-official life spent giving speeches and peddling influence, which here is presented, overly romantically, as a pandering tribute to the pleasures of moving to New York. She had lost the governorship of Texas, for goodness' sake! It might well have been fun for her to go to Broadway shows (as we're told), but surely there would be more of a sting to becoming a fixer for the richer and a speechifier, not so much a changer of lives. It is a sting that, in the show's final moments and however happy the real Richards may have declared herself to be, dramatic logic means we badly need to see.
The show, which (its many pleasures and insights notwithstanding) is too long at almost 2 hours and 20 minutes, feels like it is about to end about 20 minutes before it actually does, which suggests that there is something wrong with the final stretch of its narrative arc. The key, I think, lies in and around the arrival of both the younger Bush and of one Karl Rove, against whose skilled tactics Richards, for all her power, proved notably inadequate. The one-gas-pump town of her raising, history already shows, did not prepare Richards for every American political reality.
When: Through Dec. 4
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Tickets: $20-$85 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com