By Nancy Churnin, Theatre Critic
The optimism of Holland Taylor's Ann arrives like a tonic in an election cycle which is all too devoid of it.
Dallas-Fort Worth actress Linda Kay Leonard brings pluck to her performance as the first woman after Taylor to tackle this one-woman show about late Texas Gov. Ann Richards. She channels a weathered but profoundly uncynical spirit that feels like a salve in the current climate, where 24-hour news sources ricochet from one disparaging video or cache of documents to another.
While Richards was no saint, her goodwill and desire to leave Texas a better place than she found it is never in question. This divorced, recovering alcoholic, who jokes about lying as a requisite for prevailing in Texas politics, was an accidental politician, who got drafted into her first race and continued her electoral climb out of her determination to fight for fairness for everyone.
It's a challenging role that requires Leonard to be a nonstop dynamo. The show begins with her giving a commencement speech to inspire young graduates. It dissolves into a stressful day at the governor's mansion, where she juggles the affairs of state with the needs of her family. It segues back into the speech.
She's a hard worker who is appalled at the idea of a day off on July 4 when she demands to be scheduled somewhere -- anywhere! --publicly celebrating the country. But she's also a doting, problem-solving mother and grandmother and an alternately prickly and indulgent boss to a staff that adores her when they're not bursting into tears at the other end of her telephone scoldings.
Among her battles in this play: fighting the death penalty for a killer, eliminating concealed-gun permits and promoting integration, including taking on the right for kids to speak Spanish in school. There are affectionate telephone conversations with President Bill Clinton who, at one point, mails her a crossword puzzle purportedly because she was a clue in the puzzle, although she believes he just wanted to show off how he completed it in ink.
Under Dana Schultes' nimble direction, Leonard pulls it off in a white helmet-like wig designed by Coy Covington, and white suite ensemble with big pearl buttons by Aaron Patrick DeClerk, that conjure Richards' signature look to perfection. Stage West wasn't able to accommodate the 2013 Broadway set that made its way to the Zach Theatre for Taylor's performance in April, but Kevin Brown does a fine job suggesting the expansive sea of Ann's office, where she's chained to that island of her desk, her hand flying from signing papers to reaching for that big, old-fashioned phone on the desk, with a staccato of calls made and received as she labors from daylight to dusk.
Beyond a few choice and somewhat bawdy jokes, Richards fans probably won't learn anything about her they didn't know before, but you should feel you've spent two restorative hours with a tough, funny and genuine Texas woman who somehow won hearts as an unapologetically blue force in a resolutely red state. You may also feel somewhat cleansed from the mud that's been thrown in the current presidential election and be inspired not only to vote, but to follow Richards' exhortation to do something to make our government better.
image credit: Robert W. Hart/Special Contributor