Theater

Review: Holland Taylor shines in portrayal of Ann Richards streaming on PBS

Holland Taylor wrote and stars in "ANN," capturing the persona of Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
Holland Taylor wrote and stars in "ANN," capturing the persona of Texas Gov. Ann Richards.

How I wish I had paid better attention to Texas Gov. Ann Richards when she was alive; of course, I know those impactful sayings attributed to her (“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards, and in high heels”) and her elegant visage – oh, that sculpted hair.

So I find myself ever so thankful to film and TV actress Holland Taylor, who has written and stars in an absolutely brilliant, magnificent production simply titled “ANN.” And until July 17, this fascinating portrayal of Ann Richards is available for free on PBS Great Performances (pbs.org/greatperformances) and Broadwayhd.com.

Directed by David Wolfson, Taylor flawlessly portrays the passionate Richards; she is never off the stage, never without dialogue. Taylor is a dynamo.

The production begins with a projection of Richards’ keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, and quickly morphs into a podium-stand address to graduating college seniors and relieved parents. The address is witty and sentimental, tracing Richards’ Depression-era childhood in Lakeview, Texas, under the influence of her father Cecil (“pure sunlight”), who told her she could do anything, and her mother, Ona, who was as “hard as the nails” that held their house together.

The speech continues to reveal her marriage at 19 to civil rights lawyer David Richards, her attempts at being the glossy magazine perfect wife (“if we rest, we rust”), rehab (“I must have drunk eleven hundred thousand martinis”) and her six-year run as county commissioner, encouraged by her husband who declined the original nomination. She enters the “racetrack of politics” that culminates in a one-term Texas governorship, despite never envisioning herself in such a position. And without a doubt, we learn of Richards’ philosophy: “Life isn’t fair, but government should be” and her great admiration of Barbara Jordan. “I was proud to be from the country that produced her.”

Taylor’s face, hands and Chanel-suited, high-heeled physique express Richards’ words, ideas and unfailing humanness. Try and take your eyes off her. On the set of podiums, a solid governor’s office, flags and projections designed by Michael Fagin, there isn’t much action, but you’ll never notice or miss it because of Taylor’s magnetism.

Taylor said it was wonderful to have Richards’ expansive spirit to inhabit; it earned her a Tony Award nomination in 2013. Taylor did meet Richards once, while lunching in New York with Liz Smith; Richards was 70. Taylor was both excited and intimidated, but Richards put her at ease. “She was a rock star.”

Taylor was sad for our country with Richards’ death at 73 from cancer and wanted to act on her voice; she said she realized Richards was “so theatrical” and had “that live connection with an audience” that she was impelled to write the play. This PBS production of “ANN” was taped at the Zach Theater in Austin, Texas.

Exquisitely acted, magnificently and cleverly written, captivating and thought-provoking, this is one of the best solo performances I’ve seen in years; the intimacy and cleverness is amazing. The humor, the grit, the exhausting portrayal of Richards is quite spectacular – from the smallest detail to the conversations with staff, “the kid” President Clinton, and rebuttals with her administrative secretary Nancy.

Richards only served one term as governor (1990 to 1994). Like the charming Richards, the talented Taylor rings a memorable bell that never can be unrung with her performance. And thank you, PBS, for providing the venue to experience this wonderfully true example of stellar theater.

• Regina Belt-Daniels began a life in the theater at the age of 7. She has since gone on to fall in love with roles from Mama Rose in “Gypsy” to Ouiser in “Steel Magnolias.” When not acting, she’s directing and serving on theater boards throughout Illinois.

IF YOU VIEW

WHAT: “ANN”

WHEN: Streaming online through July 17

COST: Free

INFO: pbs.org/greatperformances, Broadwayhd.com

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