'Ann' reaches out with a firm, strong voice

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LENOX — WAM Theatre's mission is to create opportunity for and give voice to women and girls. What better emblem in the age of #MeToo and faded principled politics than principled and outspoken Ann Richards, the late one-term governor of Texas (1991-95), who died of esophageal cancer in September 2006 at the age of 73.

"When I was planning this season, I specifically sought out a story of women in politics," WAM artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven writes in her program notes for WAM's engaging production of actress-playwright Holland Taylor's "Ann," which van Ginhoven has directed and Jayne Atkinson performs with grace, wit, finesse, charm and consummate professionalism (especially in a moment early in the performance I attended in which she had to call for a line) at Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse.

"Ann Richards was passionate about voting. She was passionate about getting involved in government. She was passionate about women running for office."

Passion is on full display in a masterly performance by Atkinson that shapes Richards as a dutiful daughter, housewife and mother who comes into her own, and then some, in the crucible of rough-and-tumble, male Republican-dominated politics.

"Now y'all have to know, Texas politics is a contact sport. No autopsy; no foul," she quips.

Crafted by Taylor from Richards' own writings along with interviews of members of Richards' staff and family; anecdotes from friends; published articles; and film and video records, "Ann" begins and ends within the context of a college commencement address which gives Taylor credible license to reel out Richards' background — her upbringing in a working-class family ("my childhood was as simple as a crayon drawing," she says); her marriage at 19 to David Richards, an Austin civil rights lawyer; her role as his wife and mother to their children.

"And I thought my duty in life was to be perfect," she says. "Perfect wife, mother, lover, nursemaid, cook, you name it! I took the Waco Women's Club motto as my own, 'If we rest, we rust.' And I did all of it with prideful energy that was floating just on top of desperation."

It took a toll. She became an alcoholic, an issue she doesn't shy away from discussing openly, candidly, often with wry humor. "I was like the poster child for Functioning Alcoholics Everywhere. And I functioned all over the place." Much of that functioning involved helping various women run for political office; then her reluctant agreement to run for county commissioner when her husband declines an in-person petition from a bunch of political friends and turns to Ann and persuades her to run instead.

She wins.

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In 1988, when she was Texas state treasurer, she chaired the Democratic National Convention and delivered the keynote address. She was thrust into the national political spotlight. Three years later, she was elected governor of Texas in a bruising campaign against cowboy millionaire Clayton Williams.

Atkinson's Ann recounts all this without self-pity or melodrama; rather as the facts of her life; the mix of elements that shaped her; forged her strength; a survivor's instinct.

The play shifts to the governor's office as, in a series of telephone exchanges, Richards deals with a host of issues that need taking care of before she heads off to an awards event — calls from President Clinton; the fate of a nuclear waste dump; finding a town holding a Fourth of July parade she can lead; a state visit to Mexico; a family get-together with her four adult children and the internal politics over a family ritual — a game of charades; most important, preparing to deal with an impending court ruling on an appeal in a death penalty case that finds the governor leaning toward issuing a stay for a young man who brutally raped and murdered a 76-year-old nun. Richards is under some public pressure, including from the Vatican and Mother Theresa, to issue a full pardon — which she is not empowered to do under Texas law. Instead, she is leaning toward issuing a stay; moved by her compassion for the man, who, as a child, was abused brutally. "Really sick stuff," the governor tells an aide during a phone conversation.

Taylor eventually returns "Ann" to the commencement as Richards talks about her losing re-election bid to George W. Bush and reentering private life at 63.

"I have to confess," she says, "I wasn't going to miss the stress." But she takes pride in her administration's prodigious accomplishments, chief among them "our promise that we would put together a government of citizens that, for once, looked like the population of the state.

"And on a personal note, let me say you haven't lived until you've been Governor of Texas."

She finishes by talking about her time in New York City and, eventually, her death — her thoughts about the honor of lying in state "with me under a flag, for godssakes. I mean, it was like they were planting a general or something"; the service, the people who spoke, including her adult granddaughter, Lily, her favorite.

"Ann" wouldn't be Ann without a few closing "pearls of wisdom," she calls them, leading off with "the here and now is all you have and if you play it right, it's all you need."

Amen.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or jborak@berkshireeagle.com


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