RED HOT PATRIOT: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins

by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel
Directed by David Esbjornson
Starring Kathleen Turner (and unnamed copy boy, more on this later)
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Through April 25, 2010 (extended)
production web site:

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 1, 2010

Kathleen Turner kicks ass.  Wait.  Molly Ivins kicks ass.  Well, I guess I should say that the production Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel that is enjoying its world premiere run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company starring Kathleen Turner as Molly Ivins kicks a little ass.

The challenges of the one person play featuring a real person with a real life and family are apparent in this production.  Establish a through line (here liberal journalist Molly writing a letter to her right-wing, overbearing father when he is on his death bed): check.  But note that this through line gets a little lost in the telling. Dramatic constructs/canards selected by the production team are well intended but do not survive scrutiny.  The A.P. wire machine persists in burping out news releases to prompt story telling by Turner as Ivins when the one dramatic purpose, the 10-ring purpose (reserved for the “really serious” event we have been told), would be sufficient.  There is a truly unnecessary unnamed and uncredited copy boy bringing in pages to provide, what, a break in the action?  These gimmicks have not been refined sufficiently to my tastes.   They slow the action.  And setting this piece in a specific time (Molly writing a letter to her father) that is then set in a disembodied place challenges the audience.  Is this really at the time she wrote that letter to her father?  Did she write that letter to her father? Are we in Purgatory and she is doomed to constantly work through the energy to generate this letter to her father?  Audiences can flow with whatever the rules are, but the rules of this world are a bit unclear.  Is Molly speaking to us from a real event or from beyond the grave?  Does the audience know from the current script of this show (not the program notes, not information that they might have before coming to the theatre) that Molly passed away January 31, 2007?

And yet, from whatever dramatic place and position in Molly’s concrete life or some imagined no-person’s land, I was riveted for 90 minutes with these two women and the stories of the people in Molly’s life. Let us talk about the wonder that was Molly Ivins and the force of nature that is Kathleen Turner.  Turner enchants the crowd and her presence fills the stage and the intimate auditorium at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre with charm and humor and bawdiness and delight.  Ivins in person was just such a personality too — bigger than life, smart, funny, and belligerent with a purpose.  The match of actress to personality that many in the auditorium like myself will remember from television or live appearances or from her words in print is exquisite.  An American life and an American voice to enchant.  Dramatically, this work could be pared and focused, but experientially, this team (subject and actress) is a stunning combination.

Lighting by Russell H. Champa provides focus and fun (miracle rays!) in a spare are-we-in-Purgatory kind of set composed of desks and desk chairs assembled by John Arnone.  Projections by Maya Ciarrocchi craft mood and image and complete the world, and sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen, especially pre-show and post show Texas two step energy, evokes Ivins high humor.

Kathleen as Molly says toward the end of the play: “All your life, no matter what else you do, you have another job.  You are a citizen.”  That gives me hope.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 2, 2010)

Molly Ivins

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