WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. Ann Richards had hair that defied gravity, a wit that left opponents laughing and a grip on grass-roots politics that made her a legendary figure among women and minorities even after her one-term stint as chief executive of the Lone Star State.
All of which makes for pretty entertaining theater in a remarkable performance by veteran actress Holland Taylor in the play "Ann," which Taylor also wrote, now playing at the Kennedy Center before heading to Broadway.
Taylor, a stage, movie and television actress best known for playing the mother on CBS's "Two and a Half Men," is spot-on as Richards, who dominated Democratic politics for years after her electrifying national debut as keynote speaker at 1988's Democratic National Convention.
The one-woman play begins with the governor — Richards was Texas' governor from 1991 to 1995 — talking from a podium to a graduating class of high school students, which, of course, is the audience.
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"George Washington was from Texas," Ann begins, in a bit of bravado that is part of all tall Texas tales. But when Washington admits to his father that he could not tell a lie and chopped down that legendary "mesquite" tree, his father says, "We're moving to Virginia. If you can't tell a lie, we can't stay in Texas."
Ann goes on to talk about her life, from a Depression-era childhood to her marriage to a successful civil rights lawyer to being an Austin, Texas, housewife and her first unexpected step into elected local politics as a county commissioner.
The play's character also speaks frankly about her drinking problem and time in rehab, an unusual public admission Richards made in the 1980s.
With her white hair in an updo and proper suits, Richards was like a favorite grandmother, and a bawdy one at that.
But Richards, who in the play talks regularly by phone to President Bill Clinton, also was a keen political mind who knew what she was up against in the good-old-boy club of Texas. "Texas politics is a contact sport," Ann says. "No autopsy. No foul."
Ann talks about her challenges as governor, including whether to stay an execution, and her appointments of women and minorities to office — all while repeatedly shouting to an offstage assistant to get her four children on the phone to organize them for a family gathering. She must cajole one reluctant son still in a snit over losing a family charades game at an earlier gathering.
Richards was a crack shot who often went dove hunting, and in the play Ann nonetheless speaks of her opposition to a concealed-weapons bill.
"There isn't a woman in Texas who could find a gun in her purse," says the practical Ann.
And her ultimate tribute: "You haven't lived until you've been governor of Texas."
Curiously, the play skims over some of her legendary battles, especially the knockdown 1990 election battle against West Texas rancher Clayton Williams, and her 1994 re-election loss to George W. Bush, who would go on to become president. The concealed-weapon bill became law after being signed by Bush.
The Bushes, not mentioned in the play by name, are prominent in the governor's political life: In the 1988 keynote speech at the Democratic convention it was her mocking of the privileged Vice President George H.W. Bush, the GOP nominee, that caused a sensation.
"Poor George, he can't help it," Richards said. "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
Perhaps Taylor deliberately left that line out to include another one-liner from that same speech about the ability of women: "After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."
Certainly Richards stood out as a political trailblazer, and the play captures her spirit, though it falls short on the tension she faced as a high-profile Democratic liberal in an increasingly polarized state.
The play wraps up with Richards' defeat and then new life as a speaker, corporate board member and communications strategist who moved to New York City on 9/11 — yes, the very day — for a new life.
It did not last long. After being diagnosed with esophageal cancer in early 2006, Richards returned to Texas and died in September of that year. She was 73.
But it was her time in New York that caught the attention of Taylor.
In an interview with McClatchy, Taylor, who lives in New York and Los Angeles, said, "She was like a rock star in New York."
Heartbroken at Richards' passing, Taylor, who had never met her, set out to research her life, traveling to Texas eight times over four years and getting to know Richards' family and friends. "She was a brilliant woman who knew the world and how it worked and how the world of men worked," Taylor said.
Taylor has performed the play in several Texas cities. Broadway is next, though the producers are not sure at which theater it will play in the spring. The Kennedy Center run at the Eisenhower Theater continues through Jan. 15.
The "Ann" experience, Taylor said, "really lifts my life."
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