Tina Packer Portrays Molly Ivins

Shakespeare and Company's Red Hot Patriot Tries Hard to Hit the Mark.

By: - Aug 09, 2011

Packer Tina Packer as Molly Ivins

Most people don’t understand Texas.

To be fair, between dinosaurs and Jesus in the Texas public school system, or the dog and pony show running regularly at the State legislature, they sure don’t make it easy.

Texas is usually the kicker in the evening news. Either Willie Nelson is being slapped on the wrist for contraband, or somebody has found a crocodile in their back yard or there's something ridiculous  and unfriable being fried at the Texas State fair, one year coke, one year butter; you name it. To the rest of the country, Texas comes off like a cartoon. Anyone who loves it comes to expect that and everyone who has ever spent any time there loves it.

But loopiness is part of Texas’s charm. Where else can you go to the opera on Saturday night and play chicken-shit bingo on Sunday afternoon?

Texas is mostly heart and a little bit of hot sauce and that’s what Molly Ivins was to Texans. She was the Dorothy Parker of the south.

Full disclosure: I’m one of those people who love Texas. I’ve been lucky enough to hear the stories from some of the people who were there when Molly was at her peak so I suppose I went to see Shakespeare and Company's Red Hot Patriot with my heart ready to be broken.

The production, a one-woman show starring company founder Tina Packer was alright. In fact, it was, pretty good for a northerner. I understand Ms. Packer has been responsible for more and better theater in the Berkshires than any ten other actors you could name and she makes a valiant try at capturing Molly on the stage.

At first I thought she nailed it. Sitting center stage with her red cowboy boots on her desk and her hat tipped over her eyes she drawls out, “I’m writin” And with that, she had the audience in her hand.

Then the hitches started to show.

A Texan accent isn’t an easy thing to describe and contrary to popular belief, Molly’s Texan accent, the one you hear most often in Austin, isn’t easy to affect. That’s because, believe it or not, it’s subtle.

Molly went to school in the Northeast. She was a child of the media age, she knew not to drawl her way through life. To listen to her speak it was easy enough to forget she was Texan except for a few words that sneak out with all Texans, like “ah-out” for out,  “dah - owg” for dog and “She-it” for shit. Those words were distinctively Texan. The latter two figure pretty prominently in this play so there's really no faking it.

Unfortunately, the accent wasn’t there. At times Ms. Packer sounded cockney to me. Her pronunciation of "little" was so broadly cockney, it pulled me right out of the play.

I may have been alone in this. I need to say here, the audience did seem to have a fabulous time. Molly Ivins writing is smart enough and funny enough that you could have stood Ms. Packer in the middle of the room without any sets, costumes or props, without any attempt at an accent, and let her read aloud from the columns. It still would have been funny. So yeah, the audience loved this show but I suspect they would have loved it no matter what.

They also love Ms. Packer and I’ve been told, with very good reason. She is a dynamite performer who works mind, body and soul to bring meaning to a script. But she was not well served by this play.

The play itself, written by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel has been staged to rave reviews all over the country, (even in Texas.) But here I want to tell you something about Texans. They will find something nice to say about just about anything, no matter what.

I understand that the Engels are not normally playwrights but authors, in fact they’ve written two books about Molly. The play performs like excerpts from books, seldom does the performer get the chance to bring emotional color or depth to the role. It's a verbal straightjacket.

Where a more experienced playwright would have slowed the pace to show some of Molly’s complexity, here we are given one-liners in rapid succession, all drawn from Molly’s writing and speeches. It’s a play written by biographers; they stick to the facts.

I understand the authors wanted to give Molly the kind of shot at immortality that Hal Holbrook gave Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight” but this is a different time and Molly was a different writer. You can go to youtube and hear Molly hold forth in a number of speeches and do a better job of it than any actor, however talented, ever could.

Molly doesn’t need saving. The play does the actress a disservice by leaving her hanging with no real insight into the character’s inner life.

Sure, we learn she had a hard time with her father but everyone knows that from her writing. We learn she got cancer and died; an obituary will tell you that much. We learn she was a passionate liberal all her life and thousands love her for it. We learn she was a big, bold, brazen red-head; “a St. Bernard amongst a pack of greyhounds”, her mother once said, but nobody knows what really motivated that passion for social justice, or how she felt, deep down about her own mortality, her legacy, about the young writers she mentored and a playwright steps in to make a case, using their own imagination, for exactly those sorts of things.

She declares how she feels about these things, just as she did in her columns but we never see or feel the underpinnings.

After a play about Molly’s life, even a Texan, (part-time and adopted like me, or natural born) should leave the theater feeling they moved a little closer to understanding Molly, underneath the broad, brazen Texan surface.

We all had a lot of laughs but when we walked into the reception to graze on pulled pork sliders and baked brie - ( east meets west I suppose), the barbecue was tasty but Molly’s spirit had already left the room.