Theatre Review: Kathleen Turner in ‘Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-a*s Wit of Molly Ivins’ at Arena Stage

Kathleen Turner in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of ‘Red Hot Patriot The Kick-a*s Wit of Molly Ivins.’ Photo by Mark Gavin.

This production is not to be missed!

If you have only heard of Molly Ivins and occasionally her wit, then this show will give you a four-dimensional portrait of one of the funniest opinion journalist of an era. If you have only seen Kathleen Turner on the big screen or maybe on Broadway, then this show will give you a fabulous Turner as Ivins within the intimate confines of Arena’s Kogod Cradle. In the end this show will leave you laughing the way the political comics of old made you laugh, more cathartic and wiser than you were before that funny bone got smacked.

Kathleen Turner in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of ‘Red Hot Patriot The Kick-a*s Wit of Molly Ivins.’ Photo by Mark Gavin.

Arena Stage opened its 2012-13 season last night with Kathleen Turner in the starring role of Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-a*s Wit of Molly Ivins. Within the Cradle’s 200-seat auditorium you have no aesthetic distance or cinemagraphic veneer and no actress having to fill a huge auditorium with her larger than life theatrical persona. You just have Turner/Ivins pacing the stage or occasionally sitting down on its lip and story-telling about her fire for commonsense and honesty that could not be extinguished. The fusion of the two cultural icons is immaculate: Ivins’ wit and passion with Turner’s earthy force of nature persona could not be more riveting. You’ll be engaged from beginning to end and leave the theatre dreaming about the death of an era.

Red Hot Patriot was written by Margaret and Allison Engel, twin sister journalists who researched and wrote the piece using Ivins’ own words. The story focuses on Ivins’ struggle to write a living eulogy for her dying father, “the General,” a man who held enormous sway over Ivins’ view of herself, her work, and her world. The Engels’ story is not, however, the focus of this theatre piece. This Ivins is battling her own mortality, both personally and journalistically, as she struggles with wit and rage to expose a political apparatus that is only growing more elitist and more manipulative by the hour.

Turner looks and sounds all the brash Texas debutante grown up to be the hard-drinking, glass-ceiling-cracking journalist Molly Ivins. Costumed simply yet authentically by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, Turner commands the Cradle’s small stage with heal-tapping authority. As she bangs away on her by-gone typewriter and pulls a blank, she sucks us into the writer’s turmoil. As she strides across the stage either recalling her own political awakening or retelling a particularly funny anecdote about a politician with an IQ so low that you “have to water him twice a day,” she embodies Ivins’ fierce determination as well as her changing moods. Each of Ivins’ changing moods is artfully punctuated with precise music and sound, designed by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

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Kathleen Turner in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of ‘Red Hot Patriot The Kick-a*s Wit of Molly Ivins.’ Photo by Mark Gavin.

Projection Designer Maya Ciarrocchi deepens Ivins’ memories with a splendid array of historical photographic images. As Turner’s Ivins takes us through her life narrative, we see her younger self both with family and with colleagues. We also see historical figures, the Republican Presidents and the local Texas politicians with which she often wrangled. Collectively, these images remind us not only of just how committed Ivins was to her liberal cause, but also of the deep pain and loss that rooted that commitment within her.

For Ivins was a rabble-rousing journalist of the Vietnam era, a time when news about the war was raw and unfiltered by military publicists. It was also a time when journalists reported on the social upheavals reshaping American culture. Ivins covered the political figures at the heart of these social changes, and Turner’s portrayal of Ivins and the creative team behind this production capture not only the woman who waged those battles but also the era in which those battles were waged.

You’ll be engaged from beginning to end and leave the theatre dreaming about the death of an era.

Set designer John Arnone reinforces this feeling of the passing of an era with simplicity and precision. Only a cluttered desk with an ancient typewriter and an AP teletype device grace the stage’s foreground, but against the back wall we see a jumble of discarded desks–a graveyard of other journalists who, with spirits similar to Ivins, have already passed. Daniel Ionazzi compliments this idea with simple yet targeted lighting choices.

Kathleen Turner in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of ‘Red Hot Patriot The Kick-a*s Wit of Molly Ivins.’ Photo by Mark Gavin.

As Ivins engages us in her own eulogy, an assistant periodically interrupts her. Played with automatous precision by Nicholas Yenson, this wordless Helper enters and scurries across the stage to deliver AP news bulletins, and the contrast couldn’t be more stark, or telling. As he removes Ivins’ desk and chair from the stage, leaving the journalist without her thinking voice, the sense of loss is palpable. What now: we wonder. What now?

As Artistic Director Molly Smith notes in the program, “This is the perfect time and place for Red Hot Patriot….” Washington’s election babble is shifting into high-gear. Super-PAC funding has flooded the airways with spin, lie, and politically correct messaging. We are drowning in the swamp as every political operative tweets and texts with billboard flashing speed in the new 24-second news cycle. During times like these we are all tempted to sit back with a bottle of beer (or two or three). “Alcohol may lead to nowhere, but it sure is the scenic route,” Molly Ivins wrote. I can think of no one more sane, witty, or wise to take that trip with than Molly Ivins, particularly when this Molly Ivins is also Kathleen Turner.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

Red Hot Patriot runs through October 28 at Arena Stage’s Cradle, 1101 Sixth Street, SW Washington, DC 20024. For tickets or for more information call 202-488-3300 or click here.

About Robert Michael Oliver

An educator, playwright, theatre artist, and poet, Robert Michael Oliver has lived an eclectic life since moving to Washington 30 years ago after earning his MFA in Directing from Virginia Tech. Co-founder of DC’s Sanctuary Theatre, Michael served as its artistic director through the early 1990s. He then worked at The New School of Northern Virginia as High School Director and Director of its theatre program. Now, with both his children independent, young adults, and after earning his doctorate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland in 2005, he has recommitted himself to the arts. In 2010 he began the Sanctuary’s Performing Knowledge Project. Its one-man show, “Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance,” which Michael wrote and performed, premiered at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. A long time participant in Washington’s theatre scene, he was delighted to be the Editor, DC Metro area for the Maryland Theatre Guide for a few years.