Channeling Texas's White-Hot Mama

By Hass, Nancy | Newsweek, November 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

Channeling Texas's White-Hot Mama

Hass, Nancy, Newsweek

Byline: Nancy Hass

Actor Holland Taylor's one-woman show pays tribute to Ann Richards, the legendary governor of Texas.

If you had told the actor Holland Taylor five years ago that her identity would be subsumed by Ann Richards, the feisty late governor of Texas, she likely would have cocked a famously mobile eyebrow and shut you down with a dismissive, patrician laugh that has for 40 years made her a staple of television shows including Two and a Half Men and The Practice and plays like A. R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour.

"I know, it's insane," she says, lifting a martini ("I want it perfectly chilled," she instructs the waiter, "and none of that extra-dry nonsense. I want to taste the vermouth, as it was originally intended") in a sleek restaurant overlooking the Chicago skyline. "Can you believe I'm here, that this has happened?"

By "this" she is referring to the three-week engagement that began Sunday at the 1,800-seat Bank of America Theater for Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards, which she wrote, produced, and stars in. The one-woman show will move to D.C.'s Kennedy Center in December and is expected to open on Broadway in the spring. The play, which has packed houses in Austin, San Antonio, and Galveston, Texas, has taken over her life, she says, a phenomenon that could never have been anticipated. After all, Taylor, 68, and Richards, who came to national attention with the 1988 Democratic convention speech in which she mocked George H.W. Bush for having been "born with a silver foot in his mouth," met only once. That was in 2004, over lunch in New York at Le Cirque with their mutual friend, the Texas-born gossip columnist Liz Smith. Taylor had just come off an Emmy-winning stint on The Practice, and Richards, who lost her 1995 reelection bid to George W. Bush, kept a Manhattan office for her consulting business. "After that meeting, I really didn't give it that much thought, other than thinking she was fantastic, a hoot," Taylor says.

In 2006, Smith called to say that Richards, who died later that year, had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Smith was inconsolable, which led Taylor to reflect on the effect that Richards had, not merely on Smith and Texas but on the nation. The two women had lived very different lives. Taylor, a well-to-do lawyer's daughter and Bennington graduate, was raised on Philadelphia's Main Line, never married, and has no children. Richards grew up hardscrabble in Waco, Texas, married young, and was a mother of four. Still, Taylor related to Richards's gumption, warmth, and self-awareness. "She emerged at a pivotal time in American politics, and there really was no one like her and hasn't been since. I decided that I had to make something out of it, maybe a biopic or a book. If I were a painter, I would have done a portrait. I just had to convey her." One day, as she drove along the freeway near her home in Los Angeles, it hit her: "I realized it was a stage play. It came to me so fast and hard that I had to pull over. I just stared out through the windshield for about 15 minutes."

Taylor thus began a multiyear odyssey that included dozens of trips to Texas, hundreds of interviews, and countless sleepless nights of writing and rewriting. She talked to members of Richards's famously devoted staff and family for "thousands of hours," becoming an amateur expert on Texas politics and culture. She had never written a play, or anything, really; a spare bedroom in the Rudolph Schindler-designed home she lives alone in at the foot of the Hollywood Hills became chockablock with notes and memorabilia. She calls it "Ann's room." "I'm a loner and given to melancholy," she concedes, "and this infused my life with a huge amount of energy and focus."

On Thanksgiving Day 2009, as she left L.A. to do a narration for John Williams at the Chicago Symphony, Taylor emailed off a draft to her agent and a producer friend. The reception was swift, positive, and absolute: "Suddenly I was hiring a production designer and a director, getting a booker to find me theaters," she says. …

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