Kathleen Turner leans back in an old-fashioned wooden swivel chair and props her feet -- shod in bright red cowboy boots -- smack on top of a desk.
For the next 75 minutes, the voluptuous, whiskey-voiced Turner is up and down as she channels
Molly Ivins, the high-born Texas populist; profane, hilarious and astute chronicler of dumb-as-dirt, racist, sexist and plain ol' thieving politicians; and an absolutely ferocious, itinerant First Amendment junkyard dog.
"Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" had its world premiere Wednesday night at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. On a sparse stage set that feels like a newspaper boneyard, Turner traverses the complex life of an American original: A privileged upbringing (deb parties, Smith College, good French), a domineering daddy (a price-fixing Big Oil lawyer called The General) and a cultivated yet ditzy mama; a 6-foot physique that made her feel like "a Clydesdale among greyhounds"; two lovers who died young (one in a motorcycle wreck, the other in Vietnam, the first war she loathed and opposed, before Iraq); great jobs (The Texas Observer, her "gateway drug"); awful jobs (The New York Times, where editors were "mice training to be rats"); the God Bless 'Em Godawful Texas Legislature; her beloved dog (named "S---" for her perverse pleasure in shouting the name indoors and out); and her own mortality at 62, after three bouts of breast cancer with a generous side of cigarettes and booze.
This play is not a recitation of Molly Ivins' greatest hits, her celebrated zingers, rants and civic sermons delivered over 40 years. Still, one ought to know it was she who dubbed as "Shrub" George Dubya Bush, and who said of Pat Buchanan's red-meat, right-wing speech at the 1992 Republican Convention, "It probably sounded better in the original German." If it's a full Ivins immersion you seek, listen to all of her audio books.
For a more complex, nuanced sense of Ivins in all her loud messiness, see this play (it runs through April 18). Half the words are really Molly's. The other half are the well-researched inventions of the veteran reporter-author Engel twins: Margaret, who lives outside D.C., a former Washington Post staffer who runs the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation; and Allison, who lives near Palm Springs and is communications director for the University of Southern California, where she earned a master's in screenwriting.
"The day after Molly died I was so upset that her voice was gone that I called Allison and said we have to do a show about her," Margaret told me an hour before the first preview on March 19. "I felt she was our Mark Twain, our Will Rogers, and by 'ours' I meant the country's. She had readers all across the spectrum. At her peak she was in 300 papers. She cared so much about politics and she could write about it in such a humorous and sharp way. She could translate complicated matters in Washington so everyone could understand it. And she did it from Austin, Texas, way beyond the Beltway."
"Kathleen was our No. 1 choice" said Allison Engel. Jim Autry of Des Moines, who serves with Turner on the board of the liberal People for the American Way, was a pal who says he "told Allison I'd put the script into Kathleen's hands, and the rest is history. Kathleen and Molly are kindred spirits, and this play is a great piece of synchronicity."
Turner had met Ivins at several PAW events, and later at her New York apartment building, where former Gov. Ann Richards -- another smart, mouthy Texas political force of nature -- also had a place and whom Ivins would visit.
"I wanted to do this play to keep Molly alive, to do right by her," Turner told me after show.
Allison Engel marvels at the seven-month "land speed record" between Turner's first reading last August at an Arena Stage theater near Washington and the March 24 Philly debut. "I think we were just extraordinarily lucky," she said. "Kathleen had this opening in her schedule and the Philadelphia Theatre Company was able to accommodate it." (Arena Stage, alas, enlisted first through a Margaret Engel connection, was booked solid for 2010, hence the Philly opening, for which the sisters kept rewriting until just before the first preview).
Turner, her blond hair now a deep red, evokes rather than mimics Ivins, the latest in a succession of strong females she has played; they range from the very scary Matty Walker of "Body Heat" back in 1981 to the bitter, alcoholic Martha in the 2005 Broadway revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to last year's recurring role as the sex-crazed agent on "Californication," the Showtime cable series.
As I watched her during the play and at a champagne reception for 60 Engel & Engel friends who'd come from around the country to celebrate, I thought, "three cheers for women of a certain age." Turner is 55. The authors are 58. In fact, says Margaret Engel, one impetus for writing the play came from an earlier appeal by Sally Field, who urged women writers to create meaty scripts for older actresses. "We feel good about that," Allison Engel said. "It's a good role for a woman who's not 18 year old."
The play was originally called "The Red Rose of Texas." But longtime friend and former Rep. Jim Leach, the 15-term Iowa Republican who now heads National Endowment for the Humanities, lobbied to get the word "patriot" into the title. "There is nothing more patriotic than dissent," he said.
Ivins' favorite dissenter was John Henry Faulk, the Texas writer who was blacklisted in the '50s, later won a libel suit against the red baiters but never collected a dime. And so Miss Molly laments onstage, "We get so rattled by some Big Scary Thing -- communism or crime, hell, even sex -- we think we can make ourselves safer by giving up some of our rights. Johnny said, 'When you make yourself less free, you are not safer. You are just less free.' "
After Faulk died, Ivins hit the First Amendment and civil liberties trail. "For nigh onto 15 years, at least once a month, even in the throes of a massive hangover, I have staggered onto a plane and arrived sometime later at Fluterville or Lard Lake or some such desperate place where citizens need help. . . . It is so damn uplifting that I put the ACLU and The [Texas] Observer in my will. My legacy will be helping folks be a pain in the ass to those in power."
Some might call that red hot patriotism.