I became aware several years ago that Packer and her company have been openly searching for plays that have more of a contemporary political feel, much as the plays of Shakespeare illuminated the politics of his times. With Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, the past finally meets the present. Now the life and writings of liberal Texas political columnist Molly Ivins are not as widely known as say, Mark Twain, but with this play, her place in history is being firmly established.
“The poor man who is currently our president has reached such a point of befuddlement that he thinks stem cell research is the same as taking human lives, but that 40,000 dead Iraqi civilians are progress toward democracy,” from a July 2006 column urging commentator Bill Moyers to run for president.
One can argue that for as long as Tina Packer is around, her portrayal of Molly Ivins will rank right up there with Hal Halbrook’s of Mark Twain or James Whitmore as Will Rogers. Her performance is that powerful and affecting. A good chuck of the credit has to go to the late Molly Ivins herself, and her years of skewering the less than stellar Texas politicians who were the focus of her life. Some of the insight she had into them was learned at the knees of her father, a typical right wing Texan who, like most of those in that state, never forgave LBJ for signing civil rights legislation to empower the powerless of society.
“I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults,” from a March 1992 column.
The play was written by a pair of newspaperwomen — Bethesda-based Margaret Engel, a former Washington Post staffer, and her twin sister Allison, communications director at the University of Southern California. Under the direction of Jenna Ware, Tina Packer portrays Ivins as a whip cracking wit who, in her profane, folksy way juiced up the public discourse – often to the delight of both Republicans and Democrats.
Those of us who write for the media find it easy to connect with Ivins since her struggle to find just the right phrase to skewer the powerful is the sort of search we engage in every day. As Packer relives that torturous search on stage we learn a lot about the long career of Ivins, that she worked for just about every Texas newspaper, wrote the obit for Elvis Presley when she was at the New York Times, and that she was even a regular fixture on the tv series “60 Minutes” and hated all that gussying up she had to do for the cameras. She was no debutante princess, but a hard drinking Texan who could match the political boys “shot for shot”, in every sense of that phrase.
“I would denounce some sorry son of a bitch in the legislature as an egg-sucking child molester who runs on all fours and has the brains of an adolescent piss ant. And the next day, that sumbitch would spread out his arms and say: Baby, you put my name in your paper.” – Molly Ivins”
“Many people did not care for Pat Buchanan’s speech; it probably sounded better in the original German,” Ivins in September 1992, commenting on the one-time presidential hopeful’s speech to the Republican National Convention.
The play is set simply, with just a few big desks, and some well chosen projected images and similar effects to take us through the long career of the outrageous woman whose personality was as big as Texas itself. As Packer portrays Ivins, she affects a Texas accent which inevitably mixes with her own English accent to delightful effect. Anyone who has been around the Berkshires for a while knows Packer’s inimitable laugh, it is one of a kind, and just makes you smile when you hear it. Well, you hear it plenty during this play, and frankly, it helps blur the lines between Packer and Ivins. You come to feel that Packer and Ivins were destined to merge into one character.
There is some unevenness to the Engel’s script, and Packer who had returned from abroad just a few days before had a few minor line stumbles, but considering the intense schedule she manages, it was nevertheless a night to remember.
“If you think his daddy had trouble with ‘the vision thing,’ wait’ll you meet this one,” Ivins on George W. Bush in “The Progressive,” June 1999.
While most journalists are cardboard characters on the stage, Tina Packer as Molly Ivins has a wealth of colorful material to draw upon. The play is constructed on the fulcrum of her relationship with her father, with all the political might he represents on one end of the teeterboard and her words and wisdom balancing the pomposity and rhetoric with a clear eyed irreverent truthiness that was her trademark. As Packer unleashes those words, the audience howls with laughter and gasps with recognition. But finally, Ivins meets an enemy which has no mercy, and that words are powerless to defeat. The big C.
“I’m sorry to say (cancer) can kill you but it doesn’t make you a better person,” she told the San Antonio Express-News in September 2006, the same month cancer claimed her friend former Gov. Ann Richards.
Ivins fought cancer long and hard. According to reports it was in 1999 that Ivins was diagnosed with stage III inflammatory breast cancer. The cancer recurred in 2003 and again in late 2005. In January 2006 she reported that she was again undergoing chemotherapy. In December 2006 she took leave from her column to again undergo treatment. She wrote two columns in January 2007, but returned to the hospital on the 26th for further treatment. Ivins died at her Austin, Texas home in hospice care on January 31, 2007, at age 62.
This play can be seen as the sort of “appreciation” she liked to write, in preference to obituaries. It works as such, and it also works as political theatre, great entertainment and one of Tina Packer’s most memorable roles. And there have been many. If you like great acting, and down to earth politics, this is the show that will win your vote.
Shakespeare & Company presents Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, directed by Jenna Ware, Patrick Brennan (Sets), Govane Lohbauer (Costumes) Stephen Ball (Lights), Michael Pfeiffer (Sound), Enrico Spada (Projections) and Thomas A. Kelly (Stage Manager). Tina Packer as Molly Ivins. 75 minutes with no intermission. August 3-September 4, 2011 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA.