A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Kathleen Turner as Molly Ivins in "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" / Photo by Mark Garvin from Philadelphia Theatre Company’s world premiere production

Kathleen Turner is currently onstage at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles for the West Coast premiere of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” David Esbjornson directs the one-woman show about the famous columnist and political commentator from Texas, which continues through Feb. 19.

“Red Hot Patriot” is a roaring salute to Ivins’ sharp-tongued humor and a fitting tribute to her work as a voice of the people and a crusader for American rights. She authored bestselling books and worked on staff at such newspapers as the Houston Chronicle, Texas Observer, Dallas Times Herald, Fort Worth Star Telegram and The New York Times, where, among other things, she wrote Elvis’ obituary.

It’s perhaps no surprise that “Red Hot Patriot” is getting rave reviews, since it has a powerhouse creative team. Turner, of course, is the award-winning actress famous for her roles in such movies as “Body Heat” and “Romancing the Stone” and equally lauded for her work in theater. Esbjornson has directed world premieres of plays by the likes of Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Arther Miller and Neil Simon. And how appropriate is it that playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel are also journalists?

Margaret is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist who was a reporter at The Washington Post and now directs the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation. Her twin sister Allison has been a reporter, columnist and editor and is currently the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California.

Allison Engel talked with Culture Spot about Ivins, Turner and women in theater.

Culture Spot: Why Molly Ivins, and why a play?

Allison Engel: The day that Molly Ivins died — and we’re coming up on the fifth-year anniversary of her death — my twin sister Margaret, whom we all call Peggy, called me and said, “We should do a one-woman play about Molly Ivins.” What we were thinking about is “Mark Twain Tonight” that Hal Holbrook has been performing for 40 years, and also there have been other one-person plays about writers.

Peggy and I felt that Molly was taken from us way too soon — she died at age 62. She had so many years of brilliant writing and it just seemed inconceivable that we would not hear her voice anymore. That said, there were still a lot of people that didn’t know Molly Ivins, even though at her height she was syndicated in nearly 400 newspapers.

So we had this idea that we would model it on “Mark Twain Tonight,” which is basically Hal Holbrook standing  in front of a curtain and giving different anecdotes of Mark Twain, but as we got into it further, theater professionals told us that … we really needed to make it more of a play about Molly’s life.

CS: Why was Kathleen Turner the right actress to play her, and how did she get onboard?

AE: From the very beginning, we thought Kathleen Turner would be perfect because she can play that brassy, bold, fearless person. We had no idea how perfect she was for it until this happened: I told a friend of mine, Jim Autry from Iowa, that we were working on this play, and he had met Molly several times and he asked, “Who are you thinking of playing her?” We said, “Kathleen Turner,” and he said, “You know I sit on a board with Kathleen.” I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” And it was People for the American Way, which is the progressive organization that Norman Lear began. Both Jim and Kathleen had been on the board for decades. He said, “I’m going to tell her about this,” and I said, “Oh, no, Jim, you can’t do that yet because we don’t have the permission.” We just wrote it before we got permission because we knew we’d have to have something to show whoever handled her estate to see whether they’d want to go with the idea since we didn’t have a track record as playwrights. He said he wouldn’t tell her, and then of course two weeks later he did tell her, and she said to him, “I want that script.”

As it turns out, Kathleen lives in New York, and Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas who was a very close friend of Molly’s, lived in New York for a while after she was governor, and she lived in the same building as Kathleen — coincidence of all coincidences. And when Molly would come to visit Ann, if Kathleen was around, they’d invite her up. Not only did she know Molly, but she and Molly had many of the same philosophies and were fighting for the same things: first amendment rights, the rights of women and all those progressive issues. So Kathleen … said she was interested in it, and that really helped when we went to Molly’s longtime agent who held the rights to her writing.

CS: I could tell Kathleen had a deep connection with Molly. It was beyond incredible acting, and at the end when she took her bows before a standing ovation, she looked like she was in tears.

AE: That’s exactly right. Kathleen is an extraordinary actress in any role, but in this role she really has a personal connection to Molly as far as the things Molly fought for and believed in and tried to bring to the public’s attention in her feeling that you are a citizen no matter what else and that you have an obligation to get involved in politics, even as rotten and awful as it is now. So it’s not just words on a stage. Kathleen really believes in those issues and admires Molly for how she was such a fighter all her life, and Kathleen has a long, long history of activism.

[In the play,] Molly talks about how she went around once a month at her own expense and spoke in small towns — we didn’t put this little factoid in the play, but Molly’s only caveat on going around and speaking to groups was that she not go to San Francisco or New York or places where there are a lot of liberals where she would just be preaching to the choir — she went to these little towns and continued speechifying as John Henry Faulk had done in his lifetime. And Kathleen also has spoken on behalf of Planned Parenthood and People for the American Way — I think she’s been on the board for 25 years, so this is not just a one-time or dilettante effort; she is very committed and has given generously of her time over the years — so it had real resonance for her.

CS: What was it like working with Kathleen and putting the piece together?

AE: It really made us appreciate how hard actors in the theater work. When a play gets on its feet, it’s eight performances a week. And Kathleen does not use understudies. On Saturdays and Sundays, there are two performances each day. … When it’s a one-woman show and you’re on stage the entire time, the stamina and the concentration that takes is remarkable. Kathleen’s powers of memorization are just jaw-dropping. She was in another play before this, and when this ends she is going to go back to that play where she’s on stage for two hours — it’s not a one-woman play but she’s the main character. So she came back to our production and had to relearn the whole thing because we had made some changes and it had been nine months or so since we had done it, and within four or five days she was off book and had it memorized. That is just amazing.

She is also incredibly punctual and she never missed a performance for illness in Philadelphia when the play premiered [at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in March 2010]. She is truly an incredibly hard worker, and then also those moments of brilliance that you can’t really write in, she just does it. It’s been such a treat to work with her, and she’s also been very helpful. As she says herself, “I’m not a writer, but I’m a great re-writer,” so in the rehearsal room first time around if there were lines that were just too long or seemed clunky or redundant or didn’t belong here, we totally respected her opinion on that. So she was involved in shaping the play absolutely.

CS: As journalists, you and your sister must have done a lot of research, and everything sounded so authentic that I wanted to know how much of the script was quoted material?

AE: It started out being primarily quoted material, about 80 percent, because we had so much wonderful material to work with. Molly had written columns for years and years, and she’d written books, and there had been interviews with her, and she’d been on “60 Minutes,” so there was a lot of material. But as the play progressed in putting it together, we realized as we moved away from just anecdote after anecdote, there had to be some connective tissue and that wouldn’t necessarily be in something she had written.  So it became closer to 50-50. It’s interesting, sometimes in reviews they’ll quote a line [thinking it was] Molly’s and it really wasn’t a line of Molly’s. We tried to make it sound like something she would say in her voice.

CS: What is an example of something we would think, “Oh, she must have said that or written that,” but you actually created it in her voice?

AE: One example would be when she says, “Alcohol may lead nowhere, but it sure is the scenic route.” It sounds like something she’d say and it made sense because she was talking about her problems with alcohol, but that is not her line.

CS: How did you find or decide on the drama of her relationship with her father to drive the piece?

AE: That actually was true in real life. It was well documented that she had this drama with her father. And that was absolutely true about that column. She finally was writing a column about him, and the day she was writing it he  committed suicide. That really happened. It sounds like you couldn’t make it up; it’s such a dramatic thing. … It’s hard to get anything more gripping or compelling than that. … We did not have to embellish that at all.

CS: What has the reaction been in Philadelphia, Austin and Los Angeles so far?

AE: It’s been incredibly gratifying. At first in Philadelphia we were a little concerned because Molly had connections with many cities across the country. She had connections with many cities in Texas, connections with [Northampton, Massachusetts, where she attended] Smith College, Boulder, Colorado, Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she was a reporter; but she really didn’t have a connection with Philadelphia. So when it did so well in Philadelphia, that was such a positive thing for us.

There was a planeload of Texans, friends of Molly’s, who came to Philadelphia to see the play, and again we were concerned and hopeful that they would feel that we had captured Molly. They were very kind and generous about letting us know and people were crying, people who knew her. And that’s been the case everywhere, certainly in Austin, and just the other night in Los Angeles at one of the previews there was a woman afterwards crying who had known Molly and thought that it had captured her so well. [Molly’s] brother and sister went to Philadelphia and then went afterwards separately to Kathleen thanking her for her portrayal. And Lou Dubose, who was her co-writer on her two books on [President George W. Bush], who had worked with her for years and had known her so well, and [her co-editor at the Texas Observer] Kaye Northcutt — those were people we were very anxious to hear what they thought, and they did tell us that it very fairly captured the Molly they knew.

CS: That’s high praise.

AE: Molly has a lot of very close friends in Austin, and a lot of people are protective of her memory and they want her to be remembered in the right way. We were careful; we did not want to turn her into a standup comedian. She was very funny; we could have just done one-liners one after another, but that was really not what Molly was about. As she said, she used humor to make a point and to get people to listen. She was a very diligent reporter who researched her stories thoroughly. She wrote about the savings and loan crisis and a lot about government finance and topics where she did a lot of research. She wasn’t one of those people that just commented with one zinger after another; she put in her time covering the legislature and was really a student of government.

I think one of the most remarkable things about her was that she had a nationwide audience and was such a prescient commentator on the national political scene from Austin, Texas. She could have stayed in New York, she could have gone to Washington, D. C., but she didn’t want to be part of the pack and was very independent, and I think the fact that she was able to do that from Austin really says a lot about her skill and her intelligence, and it also put the lie to the fact that you have to be in New York or Washington, D. C., to be a national political commentator. Since Peggy and I have both been reporters both in large cities and also out of the corridors of power, that really resonated with us, because I don’t think you have to be in New York or Washington, D. C., to be able to have an informed opinion or comment on the national scene.

CS: Is there anything about this play that the media are not asking you about that you think is an interesting point that’s not being touched on?

AE: Another reason why we wanted to do the play is that there aren’t that many roles for actresses over 50. My twin went to a women’s conference before we even started writing the play, and Jane Fonda and Sally Field were there and they made a plea to these women writers saying, “We’ve aged out of most of the good roles, so please write things for women our age.” So we had that in the back of our minds also. I don’t think there’s a surplus of roles either in film or theater for women once they get past 40, so that was another reason why we wanted to do that.

CS: That’s true. There are a lot of great actresses that you never see anymore and wonder, “Where have they been?”

AE: At USC at the Annenberg School, Professor Stacy Smith does a survey once a year about the number of women in films and television versus men, and it’s just shocking, every year, it doesn’t get any better. They go to studio executives with hard data, and not only do they count numbers, but they also look at the number of times women are dressed in suggestive outfits. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but it’s seriously out of whack. [For more on this topic, visit https://annenberg.usc.edu/Faculty/Communication%20and%20Journalism/SmithS.aspx]

CS: Where is the show headed next?

AE: It’s going to two cities in Texas this spring. It’s going to the Allied Theatre Group at Stage West in Fort Worth in May, and Houston’s Main Street Theater in June. Kathleen will not be in those productions because, as I said, she is going back to this other play. So they will have Texas actresses. In Austin, there was a great Texas actress named Barbara Chisholm…. She was amazing and fabulous too. There are a lot of wonderful actresses who are over 50 in theaters all over America and, as I said, they don’t have enough roles written for them.