There’s nothing that graces a Broadway stage better than a strong female starring role. And while quite a few of them have made their appearances on the Great White Way, unless you count the endless parade of queens and princesses, very few of them have been politicians. But in Holland Taylor’s new play at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, the actress/playwright devotes her show, title and all to celebrating the life and legacy of the late Ann Richards, Democratic governor of the great state of Texas.
The show’s first act starts out with audacious Ann, wearing a shapely suit, bright white coiffur, and her trademark heels, delivering what for anyone else would be a startlingly free and frank commencement address in which she details her younger years. She recounts her Depression-era childhood, her life as a happily domesticated housewife and the gradual development of her interest in politics, a passion that probably helped end her marriage to civil-rights lawyer David Richards, who may have shared her politics, but not her taste for the spotlight. Filled with vigor and standing tall, she doesn’t mince words about her alcoholism or her regrets – and she revels in the dirty joke she permits herself to tell her collegiate audience. It feels more like grandstanding than graduation, but Richards’ sharp wit and ever-ready sense of the ridiculous, her enjoyment of center-stage, and her profound appreciation of how local democracy works all shine through. Taylor’s delivery, in a Texas drawl, is a loving replica of Richards’ own, and, as a playwright, she manages to cram a helluva lot of history into one act. But it’s an awfully long prelude, and it leaves her audience expecting to see a second act devoted to a moment of national crisis or personal catastrophe – some setting that will allow Ann’s star to sparkle even more brightly.
Instead, what we get seems to be a normal – albeit crazy – day in the life of the governor as she sits in her office, alternately barking at and commiserating with her unseen secretary Nancy (the always enjoyable Julie White) while taking and making phone calls (of which we hear only her side) to and from everyone from Bill Clinton to her grownup children. Sure, we see her negotiate plans for a family get-together with aplomb – in her diplomacy at handling the ghosts of charades past and figuring out who will make the pies. Sure, we see her real concern over whether she should issue a stay of execution for a murderer on Death Row. And sure, even though she can be impatient with her staff – especially her perpetually late speechwriter, who’s dodging her calls – she retains their love and loyalty by nurturing their talents (and buying them cowboy boots). These character notes are drawn lovingly, but after the breakneck explosition of the first half, they feel anticlimactic. And when Ann finally leaves her cluttered office and heads back to the podium to sum up her post-governor life and pass along some vague parting thoughts about democracy, you can’t help feeling that, though at times the play captures it’s eponymous heroine’s verve and vivacity, it lacks her drive and ambition.
Taylor’s in full command of Ann’s look and sound, and her love for her subject is palpable. But even though Ann’s quips and wry observations do suggest her charm, the play’s meandering structure, not helped by Benjamin Endsley Klein’s slow-paced direction, doesn’t hold your attention or build your interest. What’s more, by the end, you’re longing to see Ann, this consummate, charismatic politician, actually engage with someone in person, rather than just hearing her operate over the phone.
Ultimately, while you may leave this show knowing more about Ann Richards’ life and career than you did before, and while you may even pick up a few or her smart, sassy quips, it’s less likely that you’ll take away a true sense of the love she inspired, a love that made Taylor want to create this show and thousands of people pay hundreds of dollars to see it. But of course, if you already shared in that love, while you may not learn much, at least you’ll enjoy reliving these highlights.