“Here’s a chance to play somebody that would use every single dot of what I could imagine I would ever be at my very best. It’s meant the world to me.”
Holland Taylor, creator/originator/playwright of ANN NYTimes 2/13/17
Austin’s premier professional stage company Zach Theatre presents a rollicking and righteously raw revival of legendary actress Holland Taylor’s one-woman portrait of the outspoken, progressive Lone Star governor, through September 8. Opening originally in San Antonio in 2010 with playwright/creator Taylor as the Governor, ANN traveled through Chicago and Washington DC to stellar acclaim. The kaleidoscopic, biographical, irreverent two act tour-de-force production played on Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater through September 2013. Ms. Taylor earned toast of the town status, garnering Tony and Drama League nominations for Best Performance by an Actress in a Play and winning Best Solo Performance at the Outer Critics Circle Awards. Post show talkbacks featured as moderators luminaries such as Tony and Emmy Award winner Lily Tomlin, Tony award winning playwright and activist Eve Ensler, feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, and award winning political humorist Kate Clinton. Meryl Streep, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords joined ANN’s admiring audiences at the Beaumont. In 2016 Zach Theatre mounted the show for its Austin premiere, starring the dynamic Ms. Taylor.
So what’s different now to make the production a must see, more than a summertime guaranteed ticket sale retread? These elements contribute: the taut, timeless, award-winning script; the detailed recreation of the show’s award-winning Broadway reality, from period-perfect costume, props and signature wig to breathtaking set design utilizing Zach’s impeccable technical potential, with masterful direction by New York City based professional artist, Benjamin Endsley Klein, who helmed the show’s original run; the actress portraying Ann Richards; the aforementioned abomination and our fractured culture of repression and despair.
How often do you hear any audience cheer a set reveal? An anonymous college graduation speech bookends the show, delivered downstage center by Governor Ann lolling comfortably on a podium. Warm, witty, personal and a tad off color, the opening speech acts as laid back preamble for what follows. Stage curtains slide back as Governor Ann’s ghost straightens her shoulders and strides into a magnificent reconstruction of her 90’s Texas Governor’s office that floats into place down center on silent hydraulic gears. It’s a full-on WOW. Audience gasps and cheers as nostalgia merges with present reality. Ann Richards, vibrant, present, raw, demanding, conniving, wisecracking, multi-tasking, humanitarian, responsible and caring shares a day in her life as Texas’ #1 Citizen, as if she has sprung fully back to life. Americans hunger deeply today for such a leader…one who doesn’t foster hate and intolerance of non-white people, or use a position of power to trade off national assets for personal wealth, or disrespect genuine international allies while praising dictators, or lie incessantly, or rip babies away from families to cage them, laughing while the kiddos suffer or die of neglect and mistreatment. Not one word of the 2013 script has been altered for the current production. Yet it resonates with such power today that cheers of relief punctuate the performance throughout. Masterful for any time, in today’s world Taylor’s script is balm for the soul and respite for the sorrow and outrage caring citizens feel for the disgraceful state of our nation.
Carrying the full weight of this powerful production on slender, resolute shoulders, respected stage, television and film actress Libby Villari inhabits Governor Ann with a natural vitality and veracity that feels more like a blessed reincarnation than any sort of calculated mimicry. Her interpretation of Ann’s signature twang crackles with honest, if raunchy, humor and irony. No fools will be suffered, by golly. Ranging from impatient to reflective, impishly naughty to fiercely demanding, the multi-faceted script requires a full range of emotional transition at supersonic clip. Villari masters the challenge as if it wells up easily, spontaneously, from some well of humanity deep inside. It feels so good to imagine our Ann is back and ready to slay monsters. Director Klein praises Villari’s bravery in taking this role on, given the show’s previous success with its originator Taylor. But this actress owns every aspect of it as if fresh, never presented before. In 2018 Villari toured a grassroots-style production of the show (with minimal set pieces loaded into the back of her pick-up truck) across North Texas with Taylor’s full blessing, as a personal benefit for Senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke’s campaign. She ended up raising several thousand dollars for Beto, all individual ticket sales handled through ActBlue online. Texan Villari channels some of Beto’s palpably honest humanitarian integrity in creating her portrayal of Governor Ann.
At show’s end, Governor Ann steps back into her graduation speech reality, but now she exhorts the audience with almost saintly intensity.
“For me and a lot of public servants it’s almost a calling—Not from “on high”—but from within—that in our core we feel we can make life better for people, in a way beyond our family. But for all us citizens—men and women—we’re all in this together…Think of all those people from around the globe who leave everything behind—their homelands, their families, all they have—to come to our country, where they can vote. What will they say of our time? It’s not that good things always happen when good people vote—But it is darn sure true that bad things happen when they don’t vote. And voting is the least of it.”
If anyone leaves this performance of ANN dry-eyed, without renewed commitment as an American citizen to make a difference, to vote, and to protect the tenets of our democracy, they just aren’t listening. Governor Ann Richards would spit nails. This is how great art can impact lives.
Holland Taylor’s ANN, directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, starring Libby Villari, runs through September 8 at Austin’s Zach Theatre.
For tickets: http://www.zachtheatre.org
Alexandra Bonifield is a passionate theatre journalist and NEA/Annenberg and O’Neill Critics Forum Fellow in criticism. She is also a progressive political activist, relentless advocate for Beto O’Rourke for President and a partner in the BlueWaveTexas2020 Booth at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, dedicated to registering Democrats and promoting progressive candidates at the grassroots level.