Lone Star Study
It was at the family dinner table that Molly Ivins first distinguished herself as a thorn in the saddle of authority. In her opposition to her conservative father (affectionately or impertinently known, depending on who’s speaking, as “General Jim”), she found her voice.
Ivins became a nationally syndicated columnist known for her unique brand of populist wit, down-home metaphors and provocative political commentary.
In Arena Stage’s production of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” screen and stage icon Kathleen Turner thoroughly captures Ivins’ feisty persona, her wide smile and the cadence of her quick-witted Texas drawl.
Ivins rejected her privileged upbringing in favor of making ends meet as a rabble-rousing liberal journalist in a predominantly conservative state. She told NPR’s Terry Gross in October 2007 that the issue of race was what first got her to question the worldview of her parents.
But she couldn’t resist the “pleasant open vulgarity” of Texans and considered her love of her home state a “harmless perversion.”
Onstage, the character of Ivins describes her writing as “mostly back talk I wish I’d said to my father.”
Ivins was a graduate of Smith College who studied in Paris and spoke three languages but preferred to use “words with more salt and chili on them.” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman portrayed her in a 2007 piece as a satirist with a purpose, not just to be clever but to hold the powerful accountable. Humor was her carrot and her stick; through laughter she engaged the disaffected reader and punished the powerful.
First-time playwrights and twin-sister journalists Margaret and Allison Engel created “Red Hot Patriot” from Ivins’ own writing, interviews and speeches, and from conversations with her friends and colleagues. The dialogue is peppered with Ivins’ saltiest one-liners (“If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day”), her infamous nicknames (“Shrub” for President George W. Bush) and quirky country-fried metaphors (“as obvious as balls on a tall dog”).
The stage is uncluttered, each object carefully chosen to convey some aspect of Ivins’ personality or facilitate the telling of her story.
Office desks and chairs are haphazardly piled in the background, perhaps symbolizing various phases of her career. A silent copy boy occasionally appears to deliver Associated Press bulletins from a teletype machine. In the foreground, Ivins’ messy desk is piled with papers, a typewriter and a taxidermied armadillo.
Alone on stage, Turner fully occupies the space, embodying Ivins’ larger-than-life stature (she was nearly 6 feet tall) and persona. The only unfortunate detail is what appears to be Turner’s terrible wig or streaky dye job.
The play opens with Turner at a desk. Her feet, in red cowboy boots, are irreverently propped up on her desk. She’s struggling to write an obituary for her dying father. When the real Molly Ivins sat down to write that column, she got the news 20 minutes later that her father had shot himself. The play zeroes in on that 20 minute gap. In the play, Ivins’ life story unfolds in that expanded 20 minutes, before concluding with her own epilogue.
Ivins’ story is told in a series of personal anecdotes during a monologue that feels more like a conversation on a front porch with some combination of your favorite aunt and the person you want to be when you grow up.
Images from her life flash against the stage backdrop and AP bulletins arrive, guiding the story through various chapters of her story: the early days in all-male newsrooms; her travels on the “progressive underground railroad” as a reporter for the Texas Observer; being “declawed and neutered” at the hands of the New York Times; then returning to Texas to write whatever she damn well pleased for the Dallas Times Herald; becoming a best-selling author (“arthur” in Ivins’ Texas drawl) and nationally syndicated columnist; through alcoholism, breast cancer, and finally, her death in 2007.
In a letter for the ACLU, Ivins once wrote, “Every time someone down the line is irreverent about authority, I’ll have my monument.”
Likewise, this play is a call to action. Ivins, brought back to life by the Engel sisters, exhorts the audience to carry on her legacy of “helpin’ folk be a pain in the ass to those in power.”