Ann Richards, the second woman and most recent Democrat to serve as governor of Texas, was practically a one-woman show brought to life, so she’s the perfect subject for an actual one.
Ann, going on now until August 11 at Arena Stage, is a lively and rousing examination of a female leader who delighted in coloring outside the lines. Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven and written (and originally performed) by Holland Taylor, the single-actress, two-act show combines speech excerpts, personal anecdotes, and a sizable chunk of “day in the life” phone-call juggling to paint a picture that is all the richer because it doesn’t try to be comprehensive. To be clear: This is a good production, and anyone who doesn’t enter already a Richards expert will learn something, but Ann is to be commended for not trying to tell too much story. It paints in glancing brushstrokes, without leaving any excess globs on the canvas.
Actress Jayne Atkinson (perhaps best known for her role as Secretary of State Catherine Durant on House of Cards) brings terrific vim to the Kreeger Theatre’s governor’s office. She never once looks lost, whether she’s chewing out a staffer who’s screwed up, telling a dirty joke, or making small talk with her granddaughter. Atkinson’s performance has great bones, but she doesn’t neglect the surface, either. She is, to borrow one of the script’s many, many down-home aphorisms, loaded for bear.
Taylor’s 95-minute near monologue is peppered with such expressions (this is a governor who “rides herd” over pretty much everything), but also with nods to still-relevant political issues, from the death penalty to gun control. A brief phone call Richards places to a reporter seeking a pro-choice quote elicited a burst of applause from the crowd.
Starting at a college commencement speech and ending in a high-rise New York office, Ann spends most of its time in a single West Wing-style busy afternoon behind the executive desk. Richards orders, cajoles, sweet-talks and bargains. She flirts a little with then-President Clinton and bellows at her son to get over a slight from an old game of Charades. In short, we get to see her wear many hats without ever leaving the room. It’s everything you’d expect of such a leader, and so is this play.