Theater review: Holland Taylor’s “Ann”

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(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Canavan.)

From the moment Holland Taylor strides onstage with that trademark white bouffant, she seems to be channeling former Texas governor Ann Richards.

Her utterly convincing performance forms the backbone of “Ann,” a one-woman show written by and starring Taylor, now running at Zach Theatre under the direction of Benjamin Endsley Klein.

“Ann” kicks off with Richards delivering a commencement speech, a dramatic device that gives the character a chance to alternate between dispensing folksy advice and waxing poetic about her Depression-era upbringing in rural Texas.

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During this conversational first section of the play, Richards tells the audience about how she inherited grit from a tough mother and confidence from a doting father who whole-heartedly believed in her. She married David Richards, a civil rights lawyer, and had four children. For years, she tried to be perfect and claims to have been driven by the Waco Women’s Club motto, “If we rest, we rust.”

Rooted in her neighborhood and community, Richards’ political ambitions slowly grew as she became involved in local campaigns. Eventually Richards won a county commissioner’s race, and despite a rough divorce and battle with alcoholism, she headed toward a bigger career than she ever imagined.

In the second part of the show, Taylor portrays a typical “day-in-the life” of Richards while she served as the governor of Texas. As she saunters around her imposing office, we see Richards navigate between matters large (deciding whether to grant a stay of execution) and small (arranging a family beach trip), all with her trademark energy and feisty sense of humor. As part of her research, Taylor conducted extensive research into the governor’s schedules, and that background work is obvious here.

Taylor’s goal with “Ann” was to re-create Richards’ persona, like a hologram, and at this task she completely succeeds. Her performance is rousing and immediate. She captures the charm and tenacity of Richards while also letting the audience occasionally glimpse the character’s vulnerabilities.

Though Taylor’s performance is masterful, there is a sense that the show could have benefited from some moments of tension, or from some higher-stakes drama (a tall order for a one-person show, perhaps). The script itself is peppered with one-liners, which Taylor delivers with wry inflection and sharp comic timing.

The one-person show format allows performer and audience to be entwined in a give-and-take relationship, and the Zach Theatre audience seemed to delight in this exchange. The bountiful laughter suggested that the crowd was eager to interact with Richards once again.

As Taylor herself said, the play is not meant to be a history or a biography. It’s meant to be an evening with Ann Richards, a powerful woman with a reverence for public service. In a year when many Americans are disillusioned with politicians, the chance to hear and see Richards again may feel like a breath of fresh air.

Towards the end of the play, Richards exhorts the crowd “We have to stop whining and start participating.” A perfect message for a deeply cynical time.


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