By Holland Taylor
Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven
“Politics and government SHOULD be fair.”
Spending a day with Ann Richards, governor of the “great state of Texas,” is exhausting. The woman has almost no opportunity to take care of herself — a bathroom break needs to be scheduled and it hasn’t been, so she basically has to resort to gerrymandering to take one. Balancing state policies, federal responsibilities, devotion to her adult children, rewarding loyal staff and wooing a few recalcitrant workers takes up all of her time. Coordinating personal appearances with shopping stops, planning an annual family vacation, consulting with President Bill Clinton and pursuing final versions of her speeches from staff writers who can’t seem to finish their work are only a few items on her agenda. From curtain up to the late section of Act Two in Holland Taylor’s busy, frankly exhausting script is a nerve-wracking experience — if not for Ann herself, it is for us. Luckily we have actress Jayne Atkinson leading the way under the direction of cattle-wrangler Kristen van Ginhoven, who manages to make it all seem natural — not an easy task, but beautifully handled.
This (essentially) two-character play has the benefit of an offstage actress, Julie White, a Tony and Obie winner, playing Nancy Kohler, Richards’ longtime secretary and assistant. According to this play, Nancy has the benefit, or detriment, of hearing every word Ann utters in her office in a building surrounded by protestors. She hears and can comment on Ann’s telephone conversations with the great and the small, with her children when they can be reached and with herself when she fantasizes what her life could be like if she wasn’t the governor. White’s responses are classic, funny and supportive. By the end of the “day,” we know almost as much about Kohler, through her voice and attitude, as we do about Ann Richards. This makes this otherwise monodrama into something quite unique. It also drives the play forward in a way that gives us more Ann than we might otherwise possess by the end.
Richards was known as a witty woman and that comes through quite clearly in Atkinson’s realization of her. But we also get her charm, her mental dexterity and her trauma as she deals with a myriad of confusions. A one-term governor from 1990 to 1994, she left an indelible stamp on the state’s history (she was succeeded by George W. Bush, a man she nicknamed “Shrub,” a name she used constantly and which stuck with him through his own presidency). “I’ve been tested by fire, and the fire lost,” Richards once said and, at the preview that I saw, our local Ann Richards went through the same sort of experience when an audience member was taken ill and the play stopped for 20 minutes until emergency medical transport was able to move the patron out of the building. An experience such as this can change things, but Atkinson, who remained onstage for half of the time, came back, restarted the second scene of the play and was beautifully in full control of the situation. As a result, her portrayal of Ann Richards seemed even more real and fascinating than it already had been.
Set designer Juliana von Haubrich provided playing spaces that worked beautifully, Richards’ office being a solid, stationary location that felt almost too real to be a stage set. Jess Goldstein’s costume referenced the real Ann Richards perfectly, as did Paul Huntley’s wig design. Lighting designer Andi Lyons matched moment to mood with excellent attention to the changing needs of the script.
Kristen van Ginhoven has delivered a superb two hours of theater with this play by a woman, for a woman and about a woman that pleases women and men alike. WAM Theatre is based on the concept of women making a difference and she has honored that commitment with this production. Her use of the stage technique of set changes during scenes by “distant” figures in black worked as well as it ever has, and the two women playing those distant figures need to be applauded for their efficiency and distancing in such a professional endeavor.
The play had a short try-out at the Dorset Theatre Festival in August of this year and it is very nice to find Berkshire County’s own WAM working at the outer limits of the newly acclaimed Berkshire theatre region with such a fine company. It is encouraging to find more collaboration at work.
Applause to all involved, particularly to Jayne Atkinson for taking on such a bear of a role. It would have been a crime to miss this performance, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see it “early” in its local run and to witness the professionalism of this fine actress under pressure.
Ann plays through Sunday, Oct. 28, at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse at, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Massachusetts. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to wamtheatre.com or call the box office at (413) 637-3353.