The setting is simple. There's a desk, littered with note pads, papers, pens, books. There's a typewriter an old manual model not seen much outside vintage stores these days. And there's a desktop nameplate that reads "Molly Ivins" the Texas columnist and author with the sharp-tongued wit who made her name skewering the political establishment on behalf of the ordinary citizen.
But, if the staging for "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins," which opens in its Texas premiere Saturday at Zach Theatre, is pared to an essence, there's that voice: alternately home-spun and intellectual, colloquial and universal.
Ivins' voice centers the 90-minute one-actor show, written by twin sister journalists Margaret and Allison Engel.
And it was Ivins' distinctive rhetorical style that spurred the sibling veteran news scribes to venture into the unknown territory of scriptwriting, Margaret Engel says.
"After she died, we were angry that her voice was no longer going to be out there," recalls Engel on a recent visit to Austin as rehearsals for the Zach production, which stars Barbara Chisholm, got under way. "(Molly's voice) was never mean-spirited. It wasn't the sort of tawdry discourse we have today where people feel really trashed by the political conversation. We thought it was very important that the world keep remembering the words she said."
Jan. 31 is the fourth anniversary of Ivins' death. The best-selling author, syndicated columnist and longtime Austin resident died at age 62 from breast cancer.
During the course of her career, Ivins wrote for several newspapers, including the Minneapolis Tribune, the Texas Observer, The New York Times and the Dallas Times-Herald. In 2001, she began writing a column for Creators Syndicate to which more than 400 newspapers subscribed.
Though many in Austin knew Ivins well — or knew her voice well — the Engel sisters met the much-admired journalist only a few times at professional media gatherings. "I wasn't a personal friend," says Margaret Engel, a former Washington Post staffer who is now director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, a nonprofit that awards grants to journalists for investigative projects. "But I guess I was one of many in the Molly fan club."
"The fact that Molly was able to have this national voice while being outside the New York and Washington media power grid, that she was speaking from Texas, from Austin, and yet have this national resonance, was also very important to us."
As with Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and Will Rogers — writers who used homespun humor to deflate the rich and powerful — Engel says she found Ivins to have a level of wit and naturally effervescent storytelling that seemed as easily suited to the stage as to the page.
"If people could spend the night in the theater, as they do, listening to the words of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, why not do the same with Molly?" Engel says. "We wanted to keep her voice alive."
The sisters sought out many Ivins friends and colleagues to develop their script. Public commentator Bill Moyers, New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, liberal commentator and former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower, humorist Kinky Friedman — the roster of A-list left-leaning wordsmiths the Engels consulted topped 60. The Engels also re-read everything Ivins had published and viewed hours of her many speeches and regular appearances on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" and public television's "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
And after securing an agent for their script, and after working their personal and professional connections, the Engel sisters found their way to actress Kathleen Turner (a friend of Ivins, among other Hollywood stars), who signed on to play the Texas raconteur, and to the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which agreed to produce the premiere, rearranging its schedule to do so. (Dreams of unveiling the play in Texas never gained traction before Philadelphia Theatre claimed dibs on the premiere and Turner signed on.)
Noted national director David Esbjornson (he led the first production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches") agreed to bring the script to the stage — and also help the first-time playwrights whittle their bulky first draft down to a manageable length.
After the show opened in March of last year, New York Times editorial writer — and friend of Ivins, not surprisingly — Paul Krugman wrote that the play "got the tone just right."
Writing for the Huffington Post, Ivins' former college roommate Alison Teal found the play "neither too sweet nor preachy; but original, unpredictable and sympathetic."
Lou Dubose, former editor of the Texas Observer and who worked with Ivins on two books, saw the Philadelphia production twice. "I thought that (the play) did remarkable job of capturing Molly's real character," he says. "Molly was larger than life, but they avoided turning her into a characterization. They didn't do any Texas schtick."
"Red Hot Patriot" opens as Ivins is preparing to write a column about her father, a stern conservative former Navy officer. Despite her homespun persona, Ivins grew up in the tony River Oaks section of Houston, attending private school before heading to elite Smith College in Massachusetts, spending her junior year studying in Paris. A statuesque 6 feet tall, Ivins was as physically distinct from her debutante upbringing as she was politically from her family's right-leaning world view. "I grew up a St. Bernard among greyhounds," she once wrote.
Kaye Northcott was editor at the Texas Observer when Ivins joined the staff of the independent Austin-based newspaper in the early 1960s.
"I think Molly would have liked a play about herself very much," says Northcott. "She was definitely theatrical and enjoyed being famous and certainly a performer in her own right."
Though she hasn't yet seen "Red Hot Patriot," Northcott echoes the Engels' comparisons with the likes of Twain.
"Molly had an ear for the vernacular," Northcott says. "She was a magpie. She could hear and then adopt so many different voices. That was part of the theatrical aspect of her personality, I think. When I shared an office with her, I could tell what part of the country she was on the phone with just by the way she was speaking. She did it unconsciously, too. But she always had that Texas persona — that was her main schtick."
Northcott says the art of Ivins' plainspoken humor deserves to be recalled, given the landscape of today's heated public discourse.
"Self-deprecation was very much a part of Molly's (rhetorical) strategy," says Northcott. "So was civility; Molly couldn't abide rude people. The only thing Molly truly found funny was going after those who are entitled."
Taking the stage in the guise of someone so well-known to Northcott and others in Austin is not so much nerve-racking as heart-wrenching, says Chisholm.
"The challenge I feel as an actor is that Molly is one of us here in Austin," notes Chisholm, who dyed her brown hair red for the nearly two-month run of the play. "People here knew her and loved her, and I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure those memories of Molly are honored."
As for digesting the script and then morphing into the famed humorist for six shows a week, Chisholm says it's not been hard so far. "Molly was so funny and so arch, it's impossible not to have fun with" the material.
As Ivins herself once wrote, perhaps outlining her life's work: "Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous."
'Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins'
When: Previews 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Show opens 8 p.m. Saturday and continues 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through March 13.
Where: Zach Theatre, South Lamar Boulevard and Riverside Drive
Tickets: $20-$57 ($15 student tickets one hour prior to curtain)
Information: 476-0541, www.zachtheatre.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect price for tickets. Ticket prices for this show are $20-$57.