It takes a rare actor to put on a tour-de-force solo show and command the audience’s undivided attention with just the spoken word. It’s even rarer to find an actor who can take on a known personality in that solo show and not pale in comparison to the real thing. Kathleen Turner, in the current Arena Stage production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins directed by David Esbjornson, shows that she is the kind of actress who can not only meet this challenge, but pretty much squash it without looking back. Put succinctly, Turner is a marvel to watch as she takes on character of the sharp-tongued political journalist Molly Ivins.
We meet Molly as she sits in her newspaper office getting ready to write a piece on her father (known as “the General”). As she struggles to write about the impact he’s had on her outlook on life and politics, she reminisces about the journalistic peaks and valleys of her career and the personal moments that shaped who she became- one of the most well-known columnists in Texas, but also the country. In a brief 75 minutes of rapid-fire dialogue, journalists-turn-playwrights Margaret Engel and Allison Engel capture the multi-dimensional Molly Ivins and her 40-something years in journalism. Thanks to the exquisite Turner’s chameleon-like acting ability, we learn Ivins is more than a straight shooting liberal with something to say about the political elite, but also a human-being shaped by personal experiences and driven by a passion for change for the greater public good.
There’s something compelling about Ivins’ story and it’s a story that needs to be heard in our city at this moment in time. Breaking gender barriers in journalism (and to some extent, political writing), Ivins also became a voice for change in other areas- a voice that could, at times, barely be heard over the men struggling for political power, but a voice of reason (for some, depending on perspective) nonetheless. One particular moment of the Engel sisters’ script captures this situation well. As her character reminisces about the Vietnam War and juxtaposes it with the war in Iraq over the last decade, Turner is appropriately defiant, fierce, and confident while understandably weary about the direction political action is taking in the country both as an individual citizen and as a writer. It’s compelling theatre to be sure.
While the focus of this tight production (the result of great direction, a great script, and an enormously talented actress) is understandably on Ivins, other production elements enhance Turner’s performance while not detracting from it or the material she’s given to convey. John Arnone’s simple set, comprised of desks, chairs, and an AP wire machine, are appropriate for a news room. Through simple changes in the set (mostly in the final moments of the play) we see the impact of the passing of time on both Ivins and her journalistic world. Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections enhance the telling of Ivins’ personal and professional journey to the audience. Elizabeth Hope Clancy captures Ivins’ laid-back Texan wardrobe with her costumes and Daniel Ionazzi’s (lighting), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s (original music and sound) designs are subtle yet appropriate for creating ambiance.
This is a production that needs to be seen by theatre aficionados, but also those who are entrenched in journalism and politics (and there are certainly many of those people in our fair city)! Although Turner (under the direction of the formidable Esbjornson) deserves a lot of credit for making the production so compelling, the Engel sisters also show considerable stage writing talent, which is only bound to get better. Arena has a winner in this show.
Pictured: Kathleen Turner in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Red Hot Patriot The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Photo by Mark Gavin.