About a decade ago, when actress Holland Taylor first conceived and wrote “Ann” — a one-woman show about former Texas Gov. Ann Richards — the American political landscape looked different than it does today. Then, during the first few years of the Obama administration, the story of Richards’ political ascendance held potent lessons. So, too, did her driving desire to open government up to the people and hold those in power accountable.
Now, Zach Theatre’s new mounting of the show reminds anyone who forgot that politics is a matter of life and death.
Though Taylor originated the title role in “Ann" and even appeared in Zach’s 2016 production of the play, she has since passed the torch to actors across the county, including Texas' Libby Villari, who is simply outstanding in the role here. Though the one-woman play begins as a commencement speech delivered by Richards, it slowly unfolds as memories that culminate in one busy, foul-mouthed afternoon in the life of the indomitable governor.
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Richards was known to be multifaceted, shifting between sweetly supportive and wickedly forceful, and Villari impeccably captures the politician’s different shades. She seamlessly carries the transitions between direct address to the audience and portraying Richards at work in the governor's office with equal amounts of sympathy and hilarity.
Because Villari’s performance is so effective and Taylor’s text is so adept at creating a true sense of Richards’ passion, “Ann” exists in the small pantheon of plays that truly earn the political soapboxes to which they build. Toward the end of the show, director Benjamin Endsley Klein focuses in on Villari as Richards. She's alone on stage, exhorting the audience to participate in the political process, to call out politicians who are racist or sexist (a line that resonates with extreme power today) and to work hard to try to make life more fair for others.
In most shows, such a direct address can become agitprop, but because we have seen the way that these beliefs so defined Richards’ life, her bold political declarations become a moving summation of her work. “Why,” she asks, “should life be just about you?” Villari (through Taylor’s writing) shows us how Richards’ life was dedicated to more than just herself, to giving voice to the voiceless and to opening the doors of government to all its people without resorting to fear-mongering.
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In the end, though, it is the personal that is the most political here. Richards’ final lesson — specifically geared toward women in the audience — to “bet on yourself” is every bit as emotional as it is motivational.