Review: ANN at WaterTower Theatre

As entertainment, Ann is as fun and delightful as Ann Richards herself could be; as history, its sins of omission are impossible to overlook.

By: Feb. 22, 2024
Review: ANN at WaterTower Theatre
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Ann Richards was probably the luckiest politician in Texas history.  The incumbent State Treasurer (not exactly a high-profile partisan office) in 1990, she was the Democrats choice to run for Governor.  The sitting Governor (in the second of his two non-consecutive terms), was the first Republican since Reconstruction to hold the office, but wasn’t seeking reelection, having been implicated in the SMU athletics recruiting scandal (ah, remember the days when those involved in scandals left the public square, instead of inflicting themselves on us further?).  The Republicans had chosen a successful businessman, Clayton Williams, who by the end of the summer was up more than 20 points in the polls.  Richards had signed on to be the sacrificial lamb.  Until, that is, Williams offered up what is arguably the single stupidest (and most offensive) comment in the history of American politics, and to a group of reporters he had invited to his ranch for a (rained-out) hunting trip, no less.  Reported with slightly different wording by various sources at the time, it boiled down to an analogy between bad weather and rape (which, according to his “quip,” ought to be handled the same).

Once the incident was reported, the poll numbers shifted rapidly; suddenly the question wasn’t “could Richards be competitive?” but instead, “by how large of a margin would she win?”  While Democrats were thrilled by her inevitable victory, the fact that she only won by less than 2% (and didn’t reach 50% of the vote) more than suggested that she hadn’t so much won, as she had avoided losing.

None of this is to be learned from Holland Taylor’s Ann, a near-hagiography currently playing at WaterTower Theatre in Addison.  This omission is representative of the play itself, which paints Richards as a charming, if demanding, executive, full of clever witticism (which she was) and deep thoughts, with a great big heart, but which completely ignores everything that made her the controversialist that she was.

Review: ANN at WaterTower Theatre
Morgana Shaw as Ann Richards

As another example, the play begins with a recreation of her famous keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Party Convention, a speech remembered for four one-liners.  Only two of them are included in Ann: The line about Ginger Rodgers doing everything Fred Astair did, except she did it backwards and in heels (which wasn’t an original comment, but dates back to a 1982 cartoon strip) and the line about her being, after former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, only the second woman to keynote a Democratic Party Convention in 160 years, which was “par for the course.”  Omitted were the harsher, more famous comments: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth,” which was also a recycled line.  I believe the opening, “I'm delighted to be here with you this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like,” was also left on the cutting room floor, but I may be mistaken about that.  [I pulled these quotes from the transcript at the “American Rhetoric” website, which placed this 38th on their list of the Top 100 American speeches of the 20th century.]

I attended the preview night, which featured understudy Krista Scott, a drama professor at TCU, who did a wonderful job portraying Richards.  She was charming, witty, exasperated, and exasperating just like the real Richards was.  Morgana Shaw is playing the role normally.  A one-person show (particularly one of this length) has got to be the most difficult task in theater, as there’s just so much to remember, which may be way so few are mounted by anyone other than the author.  The occasional stumble is practically guaranteed.  For comparison, stand-up comedians, who are reciting their own words, which they’ve performed live dozens and dozens of times, will make minor mistakes during their big TV tapings, while handling material only half the length of this play.

Review: ANN at WaterTower Theatre
Krista Scott as Ann Richards

And while Richards is the only character on stage, it should be noted that the voice of her long-time (and, I imagine, long-suffering) secretary (for those under a certain age: a secretary was what we now call an Admin), Nancy Kohler, is played as a pre-recorded voice-over by Constance [Gold] Parry.  While Parry nailed her dryly toned interactions with the vibrant Richards, it seemed, from Scott’s performance, as if some of the exchanges were over the intercom, some on the phone, while others were through the open doorway.  The voice-over, however, was the same throughout.  Perhaps this is simply a standard issue with amplification in theater, but it struck me. 

With a one-person show, all of the extra elements become so important in keeping the audience engaged.  As usual with WaterTower, the set (designed by Kae Styron) was elaborate (it looks exactly how you’d imagine the Governor’s office to look), while Jesse Wallace perfectly captured a standard Richards outfit.   The lighting by Julie Simmons and sound by Lowell Sargeant (other than what was mentioned above) kept the audience’s attention focused on the story.  Director Susan Sargeant did an excellent job keeping her actress moving about the set, creating activity.  At no point was I bored.

If you like Ann Richards, you’ll love this show.  If you don’t like Ann Richards (or if you don’t care about her, one way or the other), I think you’ll still enjoy the show, as I did, but find it frustrating.  Yes, she talks about her alcohol problems and her divorce, and it does show her as being a challenging person to work for (but only if you let her down), but as I’ve said, it completely glosses over her sharp edges (a former basketball player, she rebounded with her elbows out, as it were).  When briefly discussing her failed reelection bid, for example, Holland has her say that she was the victim of a dirty tricks campaign, but then says she isn’t going to dwell on that (the rhetorical equivalent of asking the witness when did he stop beating his wife).  It perfectly encapsulates Richards, who worked hard to project a “I’m too nice to talk about all the horrible things my opponent has done” persona.  At least if you make the accusation, the opponent can respond to it; smearing by insinuation isn’t particularly honorable, not that Richards was the first or last politician to do so, but she may have been one of the best at it.

So go see this fun show, but realize it’s closer to Parson Weems than it is to actual history.

Ann runs through February 25th at WaterTower Theatre in Addison.

Photos courtesy of Paris Marie Productions.


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