Commentary: Arena Stage play offers wit and humor of columnist Molly Ivins

I've always admired the writing of the late columnist Molly Ivins, the nationally syndicated, liberal Texas columnist who took no prisoners when it came to skewering politicians and speaking out against things she thought were wrong with the world. Ivins had an amazing knack of using satire and humor to make a point.

I never met Ivins, but after seeing "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" at Arena Stage, I really wished I'd had that opportunity. The play, which runs through Oct. 28, stars Golden Globe winner Kathleen Turner, who owns the stage as she portrays the feisty Ivins.


Ivins was known for wearing blue jeans to work, even at the New York Times. So, Turner makes her entrance on stage, wearing tight black jeans, a blue jean shirt and red, Texas-style boots. There's a bulky AP machine on one end of the stage and an old metal desk, with an ancient typewriter on it, at the other end. Turner promptly sits in a worn-looking chair, props her feet up on the desk, leans back and says with a drawl, "I'm writing. This is what writing looks like. It's 75 percent thinking, 15 percent typing and 10 percent caffeine."

For the next 75-minutes, Turner, and the play's only other character, a speechless copy boy, who periodically checks the AP machine when it dings, take the audience on a journey of Ivins' life that's mixed with humor and brutal honesty. The voyage is filled with stories of her life growing up in Houston and her illustrious career of writing about corrupt politicians, liberal causes and spending many a night drinking her male counterparts under the table.

The play was written by veteran print journalists, twins Margaret and Allison Engel. They based the script on Ivins' writings, speeches, interviews she did and those they conducted with people who knew her well. The Engels said they wrote the play shortly after Ivins died in 2007 of cancer at the age of 62. It was their way of keeping alive the voice of this courageous and lively journalist, who boisterously broke glass ceilings in the 1970s newsrooms dominated by men.

"Neither of us had the gumption to be as outrageous as she was," Margaret Engel said in a press release. "We did not bring our dog or go barefoot in the newsroom or drink sources under the table. … we hope people will realize (through the play) how much she cared about issues of inequality, poverty, sexism and racism, and how much fun she had fighting the good fight."

Kathleen Turner exuded that bravado on stage as she weaved tales of Ivins' personal life and illustrious career. Turner's throaty-voice added to the persona of the gutsy, outspoken columnist who enjoyed giving her editors ulcers and making fun of Texas' culture and its leaders.

"The Austin Funhouse, love at first sight," Turner said of the state legislature. "Lazy, corrupt. Can you believe God gave me all this material for free?"

Growing up in a wealthy family and attending private schools, Ivins was a classmate of former President George W. Bush, whom she referred to as "Dubya" or "Shrub." She co-wrote two scathing books about him, both times he ran for the presidency.

"If more people had read the first one, I wouldn't have had to write the second one," Turner's character said. "Shrub didn't give us a thousand points of light. We got a dim light bulb."

Ivins loved election years and with the upcoming November national elections, it has many of the columnist's admirers wishing she was around to give her take as voters try to decipher fact from fiction amongst the numerous negative campaign ads. From what I remember of her columns and television commentaries, this political dysfunction would probably just fuel her to write stronger columns, pointing fingers and calling names.

"It's an election year, yeah! … Let the festivities commence," Ivins wrote in 2004.

"It is unfortunate for us that Molly Ivins cannot add her humor and perspective to our present situation," Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith wrote in the Playbill in describing Ivins as a columnist who was unafraid and wrote with a purpose. "She is sorely missed, but lucky us, we will have a chance to hear her now (in the play)."