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August 30, 2012

Kathleen Turner shines as Molly Ivins in 'Red Hot Patriot' at Arena Stage

Molly Ivins made her indelible mark not just as an unwavering liberal, but as one who fought for her side with such a vivid, audacious sense of humor that even arch-conservatives would have to grant her a few points.

The Texas-born syndicated newspaper columnist, who died at 62 from breast cancer in 2007, left behind an oil-rich legacy that has been drilled in generally effective fashion to create a theatrical vehicle called "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins."

The show, starring the ever-impressive Kathleen Turner, has settled into Arena Stage for a long run neatly timed for our over-heated election season. Chances are, the play will preach more to the converted than the Rush Limbaugh-inclined; it sure could fire up the base.

Mostly using Ivins' own words (some of the best material comes from a couple pages in the preface to one of her first books), "Red Hot Patriot" was written by twin sisters and journalists Margaret Engel and Allison Engel.

They capture the essence of Ivins, who had ...

an uncommon knack for zapping pompous and inept politicians, especially those in the Austin statehouse ("Can you believe God gave me all this material for free?") and in big "bidness," as she called it.

Ivins worked for several publications and had her share of run-ins with most of them ("You know editors: They’re mice training to be rats"). She came to wider attention with a recurring gig on "60 Minutes," but never entirely fit in there.

Along the way, Ivins battled personal demons, especially the bottle ("Alcohol may lead nowhere, but it sure is the scenic route"). And she never came to terms with her tough father, known in her family as "The General."

But Ivins firmly maintained her faith in what she considered the good fight, and she also held onto her ability to laugh each step of the way -- a great combination. "Red Hot Patriot" offers a welcome opportunity to be reminded of the woman's spirit, and why so many folks miss her.

Turner created the title role in the 2010 premiere production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, directed by David Esbjornson, and she seems to relish this reprise at Arena Stage. She's reunited here with Esbjornson, who keeps things flowing smoothly.

Turner's raspy, basso profondo voice is a few shades darker and harder than Ivins', and the accent misses the lilt that sweetened Ivins' Texan drawl. But the seasoned actress inhabits the role confidently and persuasively throughout the play's 75-minute running time. She truly owns the stage.

The set, designed by John Arnone, holds a vintage desk and an AP telex, with more newsroom furniture piled up in the background, like cluttered memories. Projected photos occasionally provide faces or scenes to go with the anecdotes that flow at a steady clip.

The telex, which comes to life periodically to spur some of those anecdotes, seems too dated a device. And having a copy boy (the silent part is played by Nicholas Yenson) pop up to deliver print-outs to Turner becomes a tiresome gimmick.

There are a few other questionable bits. The focus on Ivins' relationship with her father as a structuring device for the play doesn't deliver enough dramatic weight. Other subjects get raised tantalizingly, only to be swept aside by something else before any substantive words can be said.

But any disappointments can be easily forgotten thanks to the still-potent charge of the words and the dynamic performance by Turner, who has a disarming way of drawing the audience into the proceedings, just as Ivins could do.

The work couldn't be more timely. No matter which side of the political aisle you stand on, it would be hard to disagree with what Ivins said years before our current climate: "Politics today stinks ... These are some bad, ugly and angry times, and I am so freaked out. Hate has stolen the conversation."

The rants and reflections, not to mention all the wicked wit in between, sound fresher than ever, and they keep this "Red Hot Patriot" spinning. No, make that kicking ass. 

Performances continue through Oct. 28.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:45 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens


Where will the next production of Red Hot Patriots be performed after the Arena Stage?

Good question. If I hear anything, I will post it. TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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