August 30, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Turner’s triumph

Kathleen Turner as Molly Ivins in ‘Red Hot Patriot.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin for Philadelphia Theatre Co. via Arena Stage)

‘Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins’
Through Oct. 28
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW
$46-$94
202-488-3300

Since her death from breast cancer at 62 in 2007, journalist Molly Ivins’ voice has been sorely missed. An unapologetic antiwar liberal renowned for her biting humor, Ivins railed against injustice throughout her newspaper career, championing women, minorities and society’s have-nots. She brilliantly lampooned politics (particularly in her native Texas), and hilariously skewered rightwing politicians including George W. Bush whom she famously dubbed “Shrub.”

With “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” — now at Arena Stage starring Kathleen Turner — audiences get the chance to revisit the late great Ivins’ life, wit and work.

Penned by identical twin sister journalists Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, the one-woman bio drama (well almost one woman, there is a robotic copy boy played by Nicholas Yenson who silently appears now and then) opens in an old school newsroom where Ivins is struggling to write an article about her father, a lifelong Republican nicknamed “the General.” When Ivins takes a break, a combination of projected images and her past articles spat from an AP wire machine work together to joggle her memory, prompting 75 minutes of scattered reminisces.

Turned out in a denim shirt, jeans, flashy red cowboy boots and a curly red wig, Turner — despite the now signature halting delivery and almost labored breathing — gives a strong performance oozing with energy and charm. She fits well into the role of down home whiskey-voiced raconteur, delighting audiences with tales and quotes drawn from some of Ivins’ best columns; and, of course, anyone who’s seen Turner make obscene phone calls to Mink Stole in “Serial Mom” knows she’s very funny.

Staged capably by David Esbjornson, “Red Hot Patriot” also gives brief glimpses into darker parts of our ballsy heroine’s not always charmed life. Turner handles these moments beautifully too. Beneath the humor and easy Texas ways, Ivins was a complicated woman who knew heartache, disappointment and rage. Boyfriends died too young. The cancer came later. About her battle with the bottle, she says, “Alcohol may lead nowhere but it sure is the scenic route.” Humor was not only good for getting readers’ attention, it also tempered feelings.

Ivins identified with the outsider from early on. As a six foot tall, freckled debutante in conservative 1950s Houston, she felt out of place and knew her parents’ country club lifestyle wasn’t for her. After graduating from Smith College and earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, she went to work at a paper in Minneapolis followed by six wonderful years at the Texas Observer, a lone voice of liberalism in a very red state. She was with the New York Times for a while but was fired for referring to a New Mexico chicken slaughtering festival as a “gang pluck.” Ivins returned to her beloved Texas where she found a wealth of material covering local and later national politics.

As Ivins, Turner comments on a series of Texas politicians some of whose projected headshots loom large behind her. Concerning a state representative, she says, “If his IQ gets any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.” She reminds us how she warned the world about the dangers of a George W. Bush presidency in not one but two books.

And toward the play’s end, she says, “It’s not about left and right, it’s about up and down, the few screwing the many.” Ivins may no longer be around to give her inimitable take on American politics, but there’s no doubt where she’d stand on the issues.

 

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