ANNBy Holland Taylor
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven
Scenic Design – Juliana van Haubrich
Costume Design – Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design – Andi Lyons
Sound Design – M.L. Dogg
Associate Sound Designer – Andrea Allmond
Wig Design – Paul Huntley
Stage Manager – Anna Baranski*
Assistant Stage Manager – Ashley Oliver*
Director of Production – Majel Cuza
Production Manager – Phil Baranski
Artistic Producer – Sarahbeth Grossman
Additional Voice Recordings provided by – Ken Huncovsky
Ann Richards – Libby Villari*
Voice of Nancy Kohler – Julie White*
Voice of College President – Treat Williams*
Reviewed Performance: 10/18/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
After an introduction from the President of an unnamed Texas college (voice by Treat Williams!), Libby Villari takes the stage as former Texas Governor Ann Richards. Villari earned rave reviews for her complete and total embodiment of Ann Richards at the Zach Theatre in Austin. Let me continue raving, and argue further that Dallas Theater Center does a better job (a very Richardsian approach to this review).
Villari is dazzlingly authentic as the authentic Richards. You have to remind yourself that Ann Richards is not on that stage. There is no room between Villari and the character she is playing. Villari's dynamic performance runs the gauntlet of emotions and emotional states: charm, bravado, preening, humility, anguish, anger, gratitude, yearning, tears, and above all joy and laughter.
Villari's Richards is quick-witted, wise-cracking, passionate, and innately charismatic. ANN illustrates the career of an iconic female trailblazer. Villari, and the crackling script, succeed in portraying the dualities of Richards: She is true to her roots, where people do not put on airs; but, for all of her gritty earthiness and sincere connection to the common man, Richards was also the biggest, brightest bulb in the pack.
Richards did not set out to be a politician. The two careers allowed to women when she was growing up were nursing and teaching, "extensions of what was expected of women anyway," Richards wryly observes. She was born with an inveterate devotion to fairness. At the age of eleven, her family moved to California, and a young Ann relished the diversity in her new school. Before then, segregation had been a given in her life. "My eyes popped open, and I never knew they were shut," Villari beautifully explains. "Life isn't fair, but government should be," was the polestar of Richards' career.
Richards attributes her grit to her mother, Ona. Ona was the de facto general contractor on their modest Texas home, and she was "as hard as the nails that held that house together." Villari manages to recount, without rancor, the post-convention speech phone call, in which Ona gushes that she got to meet the Channel 10 Weather Man rather than congratulate her daughter. Richards is more grateful than resentful.
Richards' father adored her, and hanging out with dad made her at home with good ole boys. And then there is her affinity for dirty jokes. There are only a few dirty jokes in ANN, but boy are they zingers (one involves a Great Dane, and the other insults Bill Clinton).
Richards speaks poignantly about the love she felt for her ex-husband, who was a civil rights lawyer. As a housewife and mother, Richards lived by the credo that, "if we rest, we rust." "If it was in the glossy magazines, I was a doing it." Richards was active assisting other women attain office. When her husband turned down a request to run as the County Commissioner, Richards ran as "a fill in." "I never saw myself as the horse, and now they put a saddle on me."
The action switches from a largely off-script commencement address to her Governor's office, where Richards never has a spare moment, and is frequently frustrated with her staff. "Why must I ride everyone?" she asks. "People would kill a puppy for your job." Her non-apologizes for her outbursts to her staff are hilarious. Her comically depicted ire reaches its zenith when Richards realizes that she had been ranting to an answering machine.
The dialogue between Villari and the voice of secretary Nancy is whip-smart. Nancy is a multi-tasker extraordinaire, and her job requires that she juggle in equal measure calls from Bill Clinton and Ona's concerned neighbor (Ona is on her roof). Nancy and Richards are on equal footing as straight talkers. Nancy calmly prepares Richards for bad news, talks back when absolutely necessary ("you should know that"), and is the one to tell the harried Governor that the Governor herself ate all of the cookies. The dialogue is relentlessly funny, and Villari gets as many laughs as a stand up comedian. Richards asks Nancy to deliver a message to the Lieutenant Governor: "He can stick a broom up my ass and I will sweep the office for him. But I cannot take another call."
Villari is pitch-perfect and nuanced enduring the non-stop series of phone calls with which the Texas Governor was besieged. She is harried with responsibilities thrown at her from different directions, including duties that Richards assigned to herself. Her self-imposed responsibilities are dizzying. She is livid when it is suggested that she take a day off. The boy she met with such promise needs to be given the same opportunity as the rich kids. When she is in the vicinity of a constituents' store, she has to run in and buy a pair of boots for her staff (including the inept soul whose mistake cost her eight thousand seven hundred dollars, and "four bit"). One masterfully played conversation is the pro-choice sound bite that she promised to a Massachusetts radio program. This is Cecile Richards' momma after all. After a fiery disquisition, Richards adds a sincere thank you before hanging up. Villari delivers the thanks in a much subdued, but equally authentic tone. Here and elsewhere, this production exposes the through-and-through authenticity of Ann Richards. She can belt out a stump speech like a showman, but she believes in her heart the ideas she is entertaining you with.
In this sense, ANN is about more than Ann Richards. It is about the innate character of a true-born politician. Villari bubbles over with energy and extroversion. Richards may attribute her grit and humor to her parents in turn, but she was born with a higher voltage than the rest of us. Even exhausted and taking her pumps off for a rest, Richards is driven. When she connects with people, it is because she wants to. Richards is ultimately loveable because when it is about her, it is also about others, and what she can do for others. The point of her picture in the history books is that little girls can say, "if she can do that, I can do that too." "Take a chance on your dreams, and bet on yourself," is the example she wants to set. She spoke her mind, but beyond that, she was in office to make good on her promises because they were one and the same with her passionately held values. She was not only charismatic. She was sincere.
The play is peppered with evidence of Ann Richards' maternal instincts, including the overbearing ones. "If I were your mother-in-law, I could fix you." The many things she juggled as Governor include entreating her four adult children to get together for a fishing holiday. Richards is not the sentimental or obsequious type of mother. "Don't test my patience, son. Spare me the drama." This is delivered as part of a running gag about a past charades game gone awry by an impossible title inflicted upon poor Clark—we finally learn what it is, and it is a doozy.
We see Richards brought to tears—Vallari is masterful here—with the weight of her responsibility in a matter that was both the subject of fierce protests and beyond her ultimate control. The "whole thing is pitiful" and "a quagmire," Richards laments. The "quagmire" described here is historically accurate. The clever script reveals in increments that many of Richards' sharp criticisms of her staff surround a tragedy that is eating her up inside.
Villari's DTC costume improves upon the pink suit in pictures of the Austin run of ANN. In the DTC production, she wears a lusciously elegant ensemble: a brilliant white sheath and a matching white jacket with clean lines and buttoned with a single, symmetrical barbell clasp that matches a silver star pin. By the end, you understand why the color white is more appropriate symbolically. Also, it's just gorgeous, and the nude pumps are an improvement over black. Director Kristen van Ginhoven explained in the Stay Late talk that she wanted Villari's essential sensuality to shine through. And shine Villari does.
The set designer welcomed the opportunity to design for the Kalita Humphreys, which is a Frank Lloyd Wright theater. (If you have never been there, then please correct that grave cultural omission now). The setting commences with a commencement address, and the background set, including columns, presents a coherent visual for the Frank Lloyd Wright esthetic. In the foreground, a projecting rounded apron allows Villari to step out and connect with the audience, as Ann Richards so famously connected to constituents during her successful political career. The actress' son, who was kind enough to attend the Stay Late after talk on press night, contributed his thought that this production and the design succeeded in bringing out Villari and her talent.
The lighting was effective in facilitating the scene changes, and the sound design rose to the challenge of a one-woman show that includes voice-overs and rapid-fire speaker-phone exchanges.
Kudos to Dallas Theater Center for this timely production. ANN originated on Broadway, where the author Holland Taylor also starred as Richards, and earned a Tony nomination for Best Actress. The veteran actress Villari rises to fill these big shoes. Villari is comfortable in the live-wire skin of Ann Richards. ANN is entertaining and thought provoking in equal measure. I very highly recommend it
Dallas Theater Center
October 15 to November 10, 2019
Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas, Texas
For information and Tickets call 214-522-8499 or go to www.DallasTheaterCenter.org.