The succinctly titled Ann begins with footage of the late Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic Convention delivering the much-ballyhooed remark likening women and, of course, herself to Ginger Rogers doing the same thing as Fred Astaire but "backwards and in high heels."
Portraying the one-term Texas governor (1991-1996), Holland Taylor -- who also wrote the one-woman show at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont -- only wears medium heels, which she eventually takes off so's to go around barefoot for much of the second act.
Assuming the recognizable Richards posture during the highly entertaining -- even lovable -- character study, Taylor does do some backward stepping but just as much (perhaps much more) forward motion in her depiction of a woman with energy to burn and purpose to fulfill.
Taylor's set-up -- directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein to maximize the burning energy and determined purpose -- is that the now ex-governor is at an unnamed mid-Texas college giving a commencement speech. Smart notion of Taylor's, since this is a helpful peg on which Richards can use her subject's accomplishments to buck the graduates up as they go forward into theirs.
Thereby begins an autobiographical run-down during which Richards discusses her birth, her parents, the family's move to California where, when she was 11, she was exposed to an unsegregated school where racial tolerance struck her as natural and necessary -- and in direct contradiction to what she'd witnessed in her Lakeview, Texas home town.
Taylor slips in any number of Richards's one-liners as well as an off-color joke about a randy great dane that not only connects with the crowd (the Beaumont ticket-buyers standing in for the students) but quickly establishes the revered woman's folksy manner -- the all-inclusive manner underlined by the title of Jan Reid's recent Richards bio, Let the People In.
After Richards delivers a good deal of the onward-and-upward talk, an upstage screen lifts and designer Michael Fagin sends forward a representation of the governor's office. Now starts a minutely detailed depiction of an average Governor Richards work day, which continues absorbingly to the end of act one and through the first half of act two.
Events dropped into the non-stop action include two phone conversations with then President Bill Clinton ("You just can't get enough of me," she coos to him), demands made to unseen secretary Nancy (Julie White on tape), official papers signings, cajoling or chastising phone chat with officials and cajoling or chastising phone chats (in similar informal tones) with family members about reunions, fishing trips and gone-awry charades games.
To demonstrate Taylor's unwavering attention to everything Richards, at one point in the jam-packed monologue based on reading, interviewing and imagine she's done, she even has the compulsively multi-tasking governor pull a pin from a pincushion to see to some fringe hanging loose on a Texas flag decorating the official digs.
Yes, enterprising researcher Taylor has thought of plenty to do with a nationally important politician. (Richards's entry into politics is covered in all its arbitrary aspects.) As a result, in no way does the actor-author let herself or her subject down. Throughout both the writing and the performing (in a white Chanel-y suit with gold buttons that costumer Julie Weiss based on one Richards wore), Taylor -- of the long Two and a Half Men sitcom run -- is unceasingly and winningly ebullient.
Maybe there is a way she might have enhanced her portrait. It's a relatively minor addition to be sure, but it may have inserted intriguing cracks in Taylor's appealing valentine. At one point Richards quotes the late, great Texas political reporter Molly Ivins as insisting her frequent subject and friend had "Republican hair." (Taylor's wavy-halo platinum wig comes courtesy of Paul Huntley.) What Taylor doesn't do but might have done is refer to Ivins's frequent contention that in Texas politics, the governor ranks fourth or fifth in the chain of command.
As shown here during the typical office-day sequence, Richards is in complete control But while Taylor lets it be known where she adamantly stands on issues like pro-choice, she never reveals Richards grappling with internal power struggles she must have faced with forces from other powerful state corners.
On a related matter, does she mention successor George W. Bush? Yes, but not by name and dismissing -- as too vague to pinpoint -- any explanation for his victory over her. Others will and have differed on the matter, claiming persuasively that until it was too late the feisty governor simply underestimated W.'s vote-grabbing potential. If she hadn't and if she'd remained where she was and what might have happened to the country subsequently is, needless to say, another story entirely.
Talking about her demanding and usually disapproving mother, Taylor's Richards remembers the old dame saying, "If we rest, we rust." Well, Richards fans and those who should be, there's no resting and no rusting here.
Finally, a note to frequent Beaumont patrons: Forget any worries about a lone actor fighting the good fight on that famously vast stage. Designer Fagin has met the challenge by erecting a fake proscenium that cuts off much of the depth and keeps the action pushed reasonably forward. It's another testament to how smart the enterprise is.
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