Review: ‘Ann’ at Arena Stage

If you are a fan of Ann Richards, the straight-talking, liberal Governor of Texas from 1991 to 1995, or alternatively, if you were living on the opposite side of the globe and somehow missed coverage of all political events in America during those years, you have a treat in store at Arena Stage, where Ann has just opened.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in ‘Ann’ at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

To begin with, Ann is a very funny show: Governor Richards was known for her droll one-liners and this play capitalizes on that fact. But it is also a very moving show, one that touches on human concerns and issues from poverty to love to participatory democracy.

Written and originally performed by Emmy Award-winner Holland Taylor, Ann begins with the conceit that the time is “the present.” Richards is giving the commencement speech at an imaginary college in Texas, telling the graduates her history: her special attachment to her father, who taught her how to fish, swear like a sailor, and tell a good story; of her devotion to her husband, a civil rights attorney; of her adoration and commitment to her four children; of her expectation that she would be a contented wife and mother all her life; and of her surprising first introduction to politics, when she decided on a whim to run for County Commissioner in 1976.

By the end of the show, Ann shows Governor Richards, a dedicated Democrat, not just surviving but absolutely flourishing in the blatantly crimson-toned state of Texas. Although her achievements primarily happened from the time when she was elected Texas State Treasurer in 1982 and Governor in 1991, her interests and accomplishments read like a To-Do list for Democratic contenders for the 2020 Presidental race: dedication to the fact that women must have the right to control their own bodies; desire to reform the welfare system; protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people; equality for African-American citizens; prison reform; education and housing reform for those living at or below the poverty level; help for the disabled.

Perhaps the most vivid point in the show comes when Jayne Atkinson as Richards, explains what it was like when Ann’s mother took her to live in California, in order to be close to Richards’ father, who had enrolled in the military and was stationed there. Accustomed to the built-in segregation of Texas, says Richards, all of a sudden she saw children of all nationalities and realized that the institutionalized racism that she had known in Texas was not the only way people could live. It was the beginning of what would become the basis of Richards’ ethical and moral outlook for the rest of her life.

Atkinson seems born to the role of Richards. In fact, she has played a lot of roles with political connections on television (24, House of Cards, Madame Secretary) that seem to prime her for her appearance as the brilliant, feisty Richards.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann” at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In this show, which is done in association with the Dallas Theater Center, Atkinson has done two things specifically that make her seem almost to be Richards’ twin. She has picked up Richards’ soft Texas drawl that can without a moment’s notice spit out the most vicious insult with the speed of a viper’s tongue, all the while sounding like a charming Southern lady pouring tea. And she has nailed Richards’ ability to tell the funniest (or dirtiest) stories with absolutely deadpan humor. Of course, a lot of the credit for those lines must go to Taylor, who wrote them, but without Atkinson’s dead-on delivery, the show would not be as extremely funny – or as extremely moving – as it is.

After her initial commencement speech, Atkinson takes the audience through a typical day in the life of Richards, once she was elected Governor. In addition to continually signing a huge stack of papers that must be handled before she leaves the office, Richards multi-tasks nonstop. As she signs documents, she talks to her assistant, Nancy Kohler (Julie White) whose voice we hear constantly over an intercom. Although she is unseen, Kohler is an essential part of this piece as she fields all of Richards’ calls, places phone calls from politicos to presidents to Ann’s children, and answers the Governor’s eternal testy questions. White’s voice is calm throughout. Treat Williams is heard as the College President’s voice.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann” at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Kristen Van Ginhoven directs this production with a sure-handed approach, both in terms of its humor and pace. There isn’t a slow moment. Every joke lands exactly where it should. Juliana Von Haubrich’s set is simple at first. On either side of the stage are flagpoles, one displaying the American flag, one the Texas flag. There is a podium for Richards to deliver the commencement speech, stage left. When Richards moves from narration to describing her life as Governor, Atkinson pushes the podium and it conveniently zooms off, disappearing stage right. Haubrich’s set then reveals the Governor’s office, dominated by a huge desk, covered with papers and paraphernalia. Behind the desk is a wall of windows covered with warm brown, horizontal wooden shades.

As Richards’ horrendously busy day draws to a close, lighting designer Andi Lyons creates a gorgeous sky behind the office with pastel colors from azure at the top of the stage to apricot at the bottom, the vibrant sunset peeking out behind the frame of the office.

Costume designer Jess Goldstein has perfectly re-created Richards’ trademark white Chanel suit, white pumps, and diamond star pin. Wig designer Paul Huntley has come up with a perfect reproduction of Richards’ frothy, platinum-white hair. Sound designer M. L. Dogg creates a soundtrack to include country music and the more modern sounds of the early twenty-first century.

America lost a great and legendary stateswoman in 2006 when Richards passed away. Fortunately, this theatrical gem will keep her memory ablaze wherever it is played. Kudos to Holland Taylor for writing it, to Atkinson for bringing Richards so truly to life, and to Arena Stage for producing Ann for all in Washington and environs to see.

Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.

Ann plays through August 11, 2019, at Arena Stage – 1101 6th Street, S.W. in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or go online.

Also involved in this production of Ann:
Ann Richards’ Understudy: Sherri Edelen
Stage Manager: Anna Baranski