Produced by: Berkeley Rep
Featuring: Kathleen Turner
Directed by: David Esbjornson
Scenic design: John Arnone
Costume design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lighting design: Daniel Ionazzi
Sound design and original music: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Projection design: Maya Ciarrocchi
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
When: November 21, 2014, through January 4, 2015. Extended through January 11, 2015.
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, California
Tickets: $29-$89 (discounts available). Call 510-647-2918 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Read John Orr's interview with Kathleen Turner.
a president named Shrub
with considerable gusto at Berkeley Rep
"Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" gets a lot done in its brief one act.
In just 75 minutes, playwrights Margaret Engel and Allison Engel inform us about the life, humor and passions of the great newspaper columnist, who delighted in raking through the muck of national and Texas politics. She made a lot of people laugh, and she did all she could to get people to pay attention to their democracy.
And Kathleen Turner is brilliant and powerful as Ivins, delivering the many, many jokes with excellent timing and character inflections, and illuminating the moments of pathos with similar timing and patience.
She lets a sad moment steep just long enough for the audience to feel its power, then transitions to the next part of Ivins' story.
Tear ducts were well exercised, via laughter and heartbreak.
At one point, Ivins talks about something that happened for which she was not prepared, and which "gave me a lifelong issue with rage. And I am grateful for it."
Because Ivins wasn't just a funny writer she used her wit to get across some big ideas, in her passionate, ongoing battle for a better America. "Red Hot Patriot" is, in fact, a powerful show, filled with great ideas and important history.
It is telling that Turner and Ivins met a few times in real life, usually at ACLU events. We know Turner mostly as a movie and television star from "Body Heat" and "Californication" to "Monster House" and "Dumb and Dumber To" but she has volunteered with Planned Parenthood since she was 19, and also helps out at Meals on Wheels, Amnesty International and other causes.
Such activism burned a bright light in Ivins' life, and that is a central theme of "Red Hot Patriot," which opens with Turner as Ivins sitting behind a desk, with her feet up, her typewriter ignored, for the moment.
"I'm writin'," she says, with a bit of a Texas drawl, getting a laugh before launching into a short bit about the writing process, and the thinking involved. Ivins is writing about her father, "The General," an appreciation of his life. The Ivins household was apparently always at war, between The General's conservative, Big Oil beliefs, and Molly's incipient liberalism.
She tells a story about how she learned her father and his ilk "Were lying about racism. If they're lying about that, everything they say can be called into question."
Ivins, who had a fine, liberal education and who spoke three languages four, if you count Texan could hold her own with pretty much anyone, with either an elegant discourse worthy of her alma mater, Smith, or a beer-soaked Texas twang. She was six feet tall with a big head of red hair, and while Turner is only five-foot-eight, she brings plenty of power to the role.
Ivins' lifelong fights with her father drove her own liberal pursuits, she says in this play. She was a newspaper writer during the Vietnam War and the Iraq war, and her anger and her sadness about those conflicts show in Turner's face.
One of Ivins' early jobs was as co-editor, with Kaye Northcott, at the Texas Observer, a liberal publication in a generally conservative state. As Ivins, Turner tells the story of how the two editors would travel on the cheap, by taking a list of their subscribers. They'd get to a town, call a subscriber, who would ask them over. "Then they would call the other liberal in town, and the four of us would have a good old time."
Ivins went from that to the New York Times, where she made five times the money but was miserable. She talks about how the Times was usually prepared with canned obits for celebrities, but were surprised by the death of Elvis Presley. As probably the only Elvis fan on staff at the time, Ivins was picked to write his obit, calling him "Mr. Presley," per the Times' style. You can read that story online.
Her work at the Times was heavily edited. "You know editors," she said, "Mice training to be rats."
She got in trouble for suggesting the headline "Gang Pluck" for a story about slaughtering chickens, and was eventually fired.
She went to the Dallas Times Herald and then to the Fort Worth Times-Telegram, from which base her column was syndicated to 400 newspapers.
She's the one who named George W. Bush "Shrub," and wrote columns, magazine pieces and books that were critical of him.
"The next time I tell you someone named Bush should not be president, please pay attention," she says.
We learn who Ivins respected, and for whom she saved her sharpest knives of wit. And we learn about the people she loved, including some who died before she did.
Ivins had a dog named "Shit," because she loved to go outside occasionally and yell "SHIT!" One of the reasons she didn't like working at the New York Times was that she wasn't allowed to bring in her dog.
The show begins with a darkened stage, with an old newspaper wire-service machine at stage right, and a desk with a MOLLY IVINS name plate and a stuffed armadillo sitting just about center stage. Turner ran out from the wings, hunched over as if to make herself less visible, but got a round of applause just for being there.
Then, at age 60, she recreates Ivins, who died of breast cancer at age 62, in 2007. Turner's husky voice wraps around that Texas accent with skill, and her eyes and mouth both carry the story with expression.
It's a one-hander, except for Michael Barrett Austin, who silently walks on stage occasionally as a newsroom assistant, to pull copy off that wire machine. And to ignore Ms. Ivins' requests for coffee.
In the background, a pile of old desks. And a big projection screen. Ivins is delighted to see a photo of an old newspaper morgue, with its piles of old newspapers. It's where reporters go to dig up information, she says, launching into stories.
Over the course of the play, we see projections of Texas pols, and of people Ivins liked, including Northcott. When she gets to the Vietnam Wall, she tells the story of a poet friend who died there. Very moving.
As we reach the end of Ivins' tale, as she is suffering from breast cancer, with medical insurance that only covered one breast, the copy assistant finally brings her a cup of coffee.
Ivins is surprised and confused when the copy assistant pushes her desk to the back of the stage, and piles her chair in with all the other empty seats.
A powerful voice of journalism has been silenced, as the ranks of journalism are thinned out.
"It's up to you," she tells us, pushing her hands to the audience.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org