“Writin’ is hard,” says Kathleen Turner, in that familiar throaty voice, at the beginning of the (almost) solo play “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” The short play, by twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, is at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
From a socially prominent Houston family, the late Molly Ivins worked at various newspapers throughout her 40-year career as “an anti-war liberal in oil country.” She skewered right-wing politicians – including her old high school classmate, George W. Bush, whom she nicknamed “Shrub”—antagonized editors with her raunchy, killer wit and warned the American public (“a nation undeterred by reality”) about society’s ills, from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War and more.
“Our founding fathers,” she says, “left out poor people, black people, gay people … female people.”
Since 2010, Turner has been impersonating Ivins in this play; in red boots, curly locks and jeans, she appears to be a dead ringer for the iconoclastic journalist. Certainly she’s got the persona down: the thick Southern drawl, the hearty laugh, the cowgirl stance.
But you’re always aware she’s movie star Kathleen Turner. It’s not just the husky voice, it’s her actressy mannerisms, the way she pretends to be suppressing emotions (in one of the play’s lines, the no-nonsense Ivins refers to her emotions as unpleasant relatives, a character trait that Turner flogs unconvincingly).
More problematic, though, is the fact that writin’ is indeed hard, and neither the playwrights, who use a lot of Ivins’ verbatim bon mots in the script, nor director David Esbjornson, have found a way to make this tribute to the colorful political journalist truly stage-worthy.
The construct is that Ivins is experiencing uncharacteristic “creative angst,” pecking away at a manual typewriter in an effort to write a column about her autocratic father, “the General.” But it’s a thin device, which gives us no more than a brief and superficial overview of her life.
In a surreal touch, a silent assistant pops in occasionally to hand her copy that spews from an AP wire machine: samples of her past columns and articles.
And back-wall projections from the real Ivins’ life add a dollop of authenticity (one is of Ivins posed in biker getup with the Hell’s Angels, whom she was interviewing).
On the whole, though, the unimaginative “Red Hot Patriot” is little more than a collection of clever one-liners, reminding us what we lost when we lost Ivins.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. most Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 4
Tickets: $29 to $89
Contact: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org