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Kathleen Turner Stars in Red Hot Patriot Now Extended to April 25

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As Washington battled over healthcare reform last month, the fire was anything but friendly. With conservatives behaving particularly badly--hurling spit, bricks, racist slurs and death threats in the direction of Democratic Congresspersons—many called for the return of calm, the return of civility, the return of bipartisanship.

Or maybe we just need the return of Molly Ivins.

Kathleen Turner/Image courtesy of Philadelphia Theatre Co.Before Rachel Maddow took conservatives to task with her left-wing critiques and scathing sarcasm, another woman did the honors, only from an Austin, Texas newsroom rather than a television studio in New York City.

A female newspaper columnist in the boys club of journalism, and a die-hard liberal in the conservative belly of Texas, Molly Ivins was a minority in every facet of her career. But she stuck to her guns and it worked: “Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?” spent several weeks on top of the New York Times bestseller list, and her column became syndicated in more than 300 newspapers.

Ivins’ spirit was extinguished with her death in 2007 but has been resurrected by twin sister writing duo Margaret and Allison Engel and actress Kathleen Turner in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” the latest production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The result is an efficient show needing only one woman and one act to pay proper tribute to this larger-than-life legend.

On the surface, Turner may seem like an odd fit for a one-woman show staged far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. After all, she was considered one of the hottest sex sirens of the 1980s thanks to a star-turning performance in “Body Heat” and her sultry voice work as femme fatale Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Today’s younger generation is most likely to recognize Tuner from her starring role in the cult classic “Serial Mom”, in which she committed murders inbetween household chores.

But today, she is a serious stage actress and it shows; her ability to master the densely worded script of Red Hot Patriot—aided only by a sparse set fashioned into an old-fashioned newsroom and photographic projections of past people and memories--so convincingly that the audience is enraptured by the charisma of Molly Ivins rather than the persona of Kathleen Turner is quite a feat. While her Texas twang isn’t entirely convincing, Turner’s notoriously deep, raspy voice and sturdy yet elegant stature are key in effectively evoking the spirit of the six-foot, beer-guzzling columnist who was equally unladylike and unafraid.

Kathleen TurnerThe highlights of the show are the numerous quips, supplied by Ivins’ lifetime of living and writing on the edge. “I always wanted a dog named Shit, so I could go in the backyard and scream ‘Shit!’” she says. She also admits that she felt a kinship with the Hell’s Angels because they both “ride too fast, laugh out loud, and drink like a desert in a three-day rain.”

Her best remarks are reserved for conservative Texas politicians; as a champion of the underclass, she saw it as her duty to tear down oppressive, and, worse, stupid elites. “Can you believe God gave me all this material for free?” she asks, before comedically tearing into one Texas leader after another, including George W. Bush, Jr., who she refers to as “Shrub.”

We travel with Ivins from Minneapolis to Texas to the New York Times, but rarely do we get to travel into the depths of her heart to see what, besides politics, makes her tick. Zingers taking priority over introspection is the one weakness of the production, much of it researched from Ivins’ old books and columns.

Still, the play conjures Ivins’ spunk so infectiously that one can’t help but imagine what she, if she were still alive, would have to say about the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin and her own local politicians’ bad behavior (both The “baby killer” and “You lie” outbursts were Lone Star State creations). While Rachel Maddow and John Stewart are holding their own in the age of cable news, even “Shrub” has gone on record to admit that there’s something about Molly.

Show dates extended to April 25. Philadelphia Theatre Company. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. For tickets, visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org. or contact 215-985-0420.

Photo (right): Kathleen Turner/Image courtesy of Philadelphia Theatre Co.