‘Red Hot Patriot’
Aug. 23-Oct. 28
1101 Sixth Street, S.W.
Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle
$79-$109 at various performances
It’s a very hot day in Missouri.
“Oh God, some of the hottest weather I’ve ever experienced,” says Kathleen Turner by phone from her mother’s house where she’s enjoying a mid-summer visit.
Mom’s doing “swell” and Turner is too, she says. The rheumatoid arthritis that’s plagued her off and on for years is under control and she feels great.
“I’m in remission and off the medication,” she says in her trademark throaty growl of a voice. “Which is lovely. The medication is life saving, but it’s nice not to have to take it every day, I do confess.”
They’ve been to the movies. Turner saw “The Intouchables” and “loved it.”
“I laughed out loud — I don’t often do that.”
This morning she filled the bird feeders and notices a hummingbird enjoying the flavored water she put out as we chat.
It’s the calm before a busy fall when we talked two weeks ago. This week she opened in Washington for a two-month-plus run of “Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” a 75-minute, one-woman show Turner first read at Arena in 2009 before playing it in Philadelphia in 2010 and again in January and February at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It’s Turner’s first appearance at Arena in more than 30 years. She last played at the storied company in a 1981 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the same year she catapulted to national stardom in the film “Body Heat.”
Turner says she enjoys returning to the material, a tribute of sorts to the late Texan liberal newspaper columnist of the title.
“Every time I’ve gone back to a piece, whether it’s ‘Virginia Woolf’ or ‘High’ or this, it’s gotten cleaner. Clearer. There’s less fuss over the emotionalism of building the character and the production. It gets toned down, just clearer, sharper. I love going back to a piece.”
Ivins, a syndicated political columnist who died at age 62 in 2007 of breast cancer, has added relevance this election year, Turner says. Twin sisters Margaret Engel and Allison Engel wrote the piece using Ivins’ writings, interviews and speeches and interviews with her friends and colleagues.
“I really want to have Molly in Washington just before the election,” Turner says. “We need Molly here and Arena said they’d take us.”
Director David Esbjornson — he’s straight but says he’s an “honorary” gay for having directed so much gay-themed theater like “Angels in America” and two pieces by Larry Kramer — agrees.
“I think [‘Patriot’] has more to say now than it did before,” he says. “I think people right now are really desperate to hear Molly’s voice and they will really love spending an evening listening to her words and thinking about what she had to say.”
Esbjornson, who also did the show in Austin, Texas, without Turner (Barbara Chisholm played Ivins there), says Ivins “fought for the common man, the person who doesn’t have all the advantages financially and otherwise.”
Turner, who met Ivins, says the role was an easy choice. “Our positions are very much the same,” she says.
“It’s kind of a personality piece, very intimate. It’s really me talking to the audience directly, there’s nobody else up there. So it creates a real storytelling exercise kind of like combining acting and public speaking. It’s a wonderful mix and it surely suits me. … And the response has just been incredible. I’d come off in L.A. and be like, ‘What just happened?’ I was flabbergasted.”
Turner says the character couldn’t be more different from another legendary figure she played about 10 years ago in another one-woman show — Tallulah Bankhead.
“Tallulah was a real broken woman, terribly flawed,” Turner says. “Molly was no saint, but she didn’t have any false ideals. Her commitment to country and her knowledge and political savvy were just extraordinary. Tallulah was so self involved.”
Turner indulges a few quick questions about her craft before we part.
Having met Ivins was helpful, but not necessary — “I’m an actor, I don’t imitate. This is my interpretation.”
Of her increasingly theater-heavy oeuvre, Turner is fine with it, except that it “pays so poorly, which is a damn shame.” She loves the “extraordinary magic” of it, though.
Learning lines is always a physical thing for her — she never does it sitting down. It starts with “roping together” thoughts and links in the script.
Esbjornson says the show shifts and surprises in a way that keeps it tight, despite the lean mechanics.
“You never let people settle in fully and feel they know where this is going,” he says.
Turner arrives for an 8 p.m. curtain about 6 and does vocal warm-ups. Vocal stamina over a run is not a problem, “unless you get sick, then that’s a whole other thing.”
After a performance, Turner is low-key. She’s usually back to her apartment cooking or watching TV. “You get tired of eating out all the time,” she says. “And I’m a very good cook.”
The legendary actress is especially insightful on her gay sensibility, which she doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge.
“I don’t take myself so seriously,” she says. “I have a ‘fuck you’ attitude and I think gay people like that.”