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Review: If you need another vision of Texas state politics, go see Holland Taylor’s ‘Ann’

A woman wears a white jacket and skirt on a darkened stage.
Holland Taylor portrays former Texas Gov. Ann Richards in “Ann” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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As Texas Gov. Greg Abbott criminalizes women’s health and support for transgender children while turning his state into a witch-trial system of citizen informants, one has to wonder where, exactly, this man thinks he is going to go when he dies.

He will certainly not have a theatrical afterlife at, say, the Pasadena Playhouse, immortalized by a Tony-nominated, Emmy-winning performer in a brief and shining monument of humor and hope.

That honor belongs solely to Ann Richards, the folksy, firebrand feminist who galvanized the 1988 Democratic convention and, two years later, became only the second, and thus far, last female governor of Texas.

That’s right. A folksy firebrand feminist once sat at the helm of the Lone Star State, and Holland Taylor is determined that we won’t forget it.

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“Ann,” the one-woman play Taylor wrote and stars in, was developed at NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood, opened at Lincoln Center in 2013 and was supposed to debut in Pasadena in 2020. It was shut down, like so many productions, by the COVID-19 pandemic, making Taylor’s return to the stage that much sweeter.

At Saturday’s ebullient opening night, it was tough to tell which woman the audience appreciated most — Richards, with her famous combination of homespun wit and political grit, or Taylor, who at 79 managed to schedule a reprise of her Tony-nominated role into a schedule bursting with terrific television performances, most lately in “Hollywood,” “The Morning Show” and “The Chair.”

The show, which runs through April 24 and is both its West Coast premiere and its farewell performance, opens with Richards delivering a graduation speech at a non-identified university. (In case the audience needs reminding of who she is, the speech is prefaced by a clip of Richards’ actual convention speech.) When she walks onto Michael Fagin’s spare but evocative set to say — “I know what you thought when I walked on: ‘God she looks good’” — the appreciative roar could have been for Richards, Taylor or both.

Not that it matters. With her near-luminescent white hair, comedic timing and Texas twang — “After listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like,” she famously said in the 1988 keynote — Richards is a character ripe for, well, caricature. But Taylor, more known for playing cool professional elites than homespun pols, doesn’t play Richards so much as she channels her.

And while it’s impossible not to admire the physical transformation made possible by Paul Huntley’s shining beacon of a wig or Julie Weiss’ perfect choice of cream-colored, gold-buttoned Chanel knockoff suit, the power of “Ann” is driven by Taylor’s ability to capture Richards’ voice. Not the accent, or even the wicked humor, but the kitchen-table frankness — including her ongoing astonishment that she found herself, as a middle-aged former housewife, on the national stage — that made Richards a political star.

In the early, commencement-speech-giving portion of the play, directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, Richards offers the audience a brief summary of her early life: born during the Depression, she grew up poor (“I prefer the term ‘hard-working’”) in a tiny Texas town. She married at 19, had four children and, through her husband, became involved in the Texas Democratic Party, helping Sarah Weddington and Wilhelmina Delco get elected to the state legislature. “But then they would go to work and I would go back” to the million tasks of a Texas homemaker, following, as she says, the Waco Women’s Club motto: “If we rest, we rust.”

When she was approached to run for county commissioner, she initially balked — she was a woman, a Democrat “and then there was the drinking.” She won her seat and, after an intervention staged by her friends, entered rehab, breaking, as she says, another political barrier. “Nowadays, hell you can’t hardly get into a primary unless you’ve done time in rehab.”

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She was elected state treasurer, which was when she got the call to be the keynote speaker for the Democratic convention, and that speech helped her win the governorship.

Well, that speech and a tireless campaign, which included visits to far too many state fairs — “have you ever been to a state fair without a hat?” she asks — and endless door-knocking, which Taylor mimes with increasingly sagging steps and the exhausted note that “Texas is as big as France.” (It’s actually bigger.)

It is hard to present a half-century of memoir in monologue. And despite the many humorous asides, insights and, at one point, a dirty joke, neither Taylor nor Klein can keep the narrative from lagging. But when, toward the end of the first act, the actions moves to the governor’s office, the play, as Ann would say, hits the gas.

With nothing but a desk, a phone and the off-stage voice of Richards’ secretary, Nancy Kohler (Julie White), Taylor whips Richards into such a whirlwind of multilayered multitasking that it seems that she will not only (among many other things) stay an execution, solve a financial issue, plan a family gathering, goad her speechwriter into finishing, give a filmmaker a quote about abortion rights, buy her entire staff cowboy boots, speak with then-President Clinton (twice), but also, quite possibly, split the atom.

At one point she is on the phone and pinning up a bit of fringe that has fallen from one of the two Texas state flags in her office, a moment that honestly just killed me.

It is a breathtaking performance. Not only does Richards never miss a beat, but Taylor’s performance is so superbly alive that you feel as if there were 20 other people on stage, having full-on crises and conversations, all made real simply by the actor’s near-supernatural ability to conjure them.

Drawn from a panoply of research, including Richards’ autobiography, “Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics & Other Places,” interviews with family and friends as well as Taylor’s own friendship with her subject, “Ann” is not a deep psychological excavation or a window onto the larger political landscape, nor does it attempt to be. As she recently told Times critic Charles McNulty, she felt she was “drafted” to write this play by Richards herself and it’s tough to imagine Richards wanting to be either an excavation site or a window.

It is, if you will, an evening with Ann Richards. And who on this good Earth would not want to spend an evening with Ann Richards?

In the play’s final minutes, we leave the governor’s office, as does Richards, who loses her 1994 reelection campaign to George W. Bush. We learn of her reinvention as a consultant, her continued friendship with Clinton, and then of her death, from cancer, in 2006. Though this allows Richards to describe, in delight, her own funeral, the play returns to its opening set (which is a bit confusing because, well, at this point in her own narrative she is dead) and a bit more speechifying than is absolutely necessary.

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Still, what “Ann” lacks in structure, or perhaps economy, it more than makes up for in heart. At this moment in time, it seems all but impossible that a woman like this once ran Texas, was once a force in this country’s politics. So it’s good to be reminded that both those things are true, and can be true again.

“Ann” is, in the end, a gift. From Taylor to Richards to be sure, but also from both Taylor and Richards to us, just when we needed it most.

'Ann'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Check for exceptions.) Ends April 24.
Tickets: $30 and up
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (includes one 15-minute intermission)

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