At the top of “Ann” — actress and first-time playwright Holland Taylor’s acclaimed one-woman show about legendary Texas Gov. Ann Richards — the politician is seen addressing the 1998 Democratic convention.
At the time, she was Texas’ state treasurer.
Richards establishes her spitfire bona fides while invoking the memory of Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who delivered a historic keynote address in 1976.
“Two women in 160 years is about par for the course,” Richards quips, jabbing at sexism in politics while noting she was only the second woman to give the keynote address.
“But if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, she just did it backward — and in high heels.”
It’s a winning introduction to both Richards — a recovered alcoholic, divorcee, and mother of four (daughter Cecile later became president of Planned Parenthood) — and Taylor, whose savvy portrayal is as earthy as it is elegant.
It’s also deeply informed by the three years of research Taylor conducted before the play’s first production in 2010.
“I could have researched for 10 years more and been happy as a clam, because learning her at the deepest possible level was one of the great pleasures of life,” the Philadelphia-born actress recalled during an animated phone discussion of the play.
From its Galveston debut, the play eventually wound its way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and then Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where Taylor earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance in 2013.
“Ann” was scheduled to receive its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2020, but COVID-19 had other plans.
Directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, it finally landed on the Playhouse stage Tuesday, March 22. It runs through Sunday, April 24.
“She is timeless, and her values are always necessary. The homespun truths that she lived by will always be true,” said Taylor, who channeled her sorrow over Richards’ 2006 death into the play.
“People found it very timely in New York in 2013 — some of the themes she discusses and also what she stood for. During Trump’s presidency in 2016, we took the play to Austin, and audience members who had seen it in New York said, ‘You did good little rewrites.’ I said, ‘No, there’s nothing new in the play.’ ‘But it’s so timely,’ they said. I said, ‘She’s timely.’”
Richards’ pride in establishing an administration reflecting the Lone Star state’s demographic diversity echoes the Biden administration: “More important than legislation, more important than vetoes and the bully pulpit, was our promise that we would put together a government of citizens that for once looked like the population of this state, where there would be no persons in all of Texas who did not see others serving in office who looked just like them.”
Life isn’t fair, but government should be, Richards reminds the audience more than once, a mantra Taylor’s script shows arising from Richards’ modest background.
“The person who holds this office really must have a conscience to know that how they direct this government dramatically affects the lives of real people who are counting on them,” Richards insisted.
“This play is not political; it is not partisan,” Taylor emphasized. “It isn’t really that much about politics; it’s about a woman. Now, she happens to spend part of her time as a politician. Full-time human, part-time politician.”
Taylor, whose sharp comic timing has distinguished her work in film (“Legally Blonde,” “Romancing the Stone”) and television (“Hollywood,” “Two and a Half Men,” an Emmy-winning turn in “The Practice”), recounts the one time she met Richards at a hilarious lunch at Le Cirque in Manhattan with gossip columnist pal Liz Smith and a roomful of awed society doyennes and business hotshots.
“I’ve said this a thousand times in interviews because it’s true: she could have been Mick Jagger. People were like, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Asked what she considers Richards’ greatest legacy, she cited the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders and Richards’ talent for lifting people up: “She knew how to live. She lived a meaningful life that was very full of joy.
“She had no training to be a great leader,” Taylor said.
“There was nothing to make anyone think she would achieve anything special in life from what she came into in this world. So, it’s good to see somebody who has human faults and wonderful characteristics and came from an unassuming background who reaches for the stars and who also has a purpose to their life. I think that is the thing that inspires people.”
At 79, Taylor said the prospect of “serving something bigger than myself” persuaded her to commit to such a taxing show.
“It takes two months to learn the play; it’s a very, very long text. There’s no ad libbing. It’s very complicatedly written. It is very precisely written. I do not change a word,” she explained, adding that she repeats words to replicate Richards’ speech patterns.
“I have two hours a day with somebody on FaceTime watching the script while I am doing it from memory. So, by the end of the two months leading up to rehearsal, you’re doing half the play every day. … It is a spiritual adventure, which is funny when you consider I’m not particularly spiritual. But it is definitely a quest, and it is a heart-filled quest.”
“Ann” with Holland Taylor
WHEN: Various times Tuesday, March 22, through Sunday, April 24
WHERE: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena
COST: Tickets start at $34