I say all this because it provides some important context. Even as deep red conservative as my father has been for as long as I can recall, he still enjoyed reading Molly Ivins. Yes, that Molly Ivins. The one who nicknamed George W. Bush “Shrub.” The incendiary, firebrand columnist who left an indelible mark on the world of journalism. While it’s true that he rarely agreed with her viewpoints or analysis, I still have memories of my father reading and enjoying Ivins’ writing.
Ivins, even if you didn’t agree with her, always had something to say, and she said in a way that no one else either could or would and in a way that forced you to take notice and pay attention.
Anyone who takes on a one-man (or in this case, woman) show about the life and exploits of Molly Ivins was always going to have their work cut out for them. Thankfully, Frances Whiteside has taken to the task with a tenacity and passion that comes through in nearly every moment of “Red Hot Patriot.”
Written by twin sisters and journalists Margaret and Allison Engel the show covers the majority of Ivins’ life, though we open with Ivins lounging at her cluttered desk, laptop open, legs propped up on an open drawer, eyes closed.
“I’m writing,” she insists. Up against a deadline, as always, Ivins is procrastinating. Although, as any good writer knows, your best stuff comes when it’s down to the wire, so there’s still a little while to go before the creative juices really kick in. She’s trying to write a column about her father, “General Jim” Ivins. Reminiscing about her father leads into learning about Ivins’ childhood and eventually segueing into her full life’s story as she went from interning at the Houston Chronicle to making waves at the New York Times before finally coming back to Texas to cover Austin politics in all its sordid glory and ending with her fight against breast cancer.
It’s sharply written stuff. The material manages to both be expositional yet probing. The danger when it comes to a biographical, one-person play of this sort is to turn it into a clip show, giving a broad overview without ever really attempting to define or explore the subject in a meaningful manner. At a rather brisk 90 minutes, “Red Hot Patriot” isn’t necessarily in-depth, but it still manages to communicate the essence of who Ivins was and what drove her.
We get moments of humor (Ivins had a razor-sharp wit), moments of introspection as well as moments of unguarded emotion. Most may know Ivins as a firebrand on the page, but “Red Hot Patriot” does a good job of providing context and opening a larger window into her life. Like her writing, you may not agree with her, but you cannot help but be fully engaged by who and what she was.
She invests herself in Ivins’ persona and personality. It’s not a facsimile, but that’s not really what Whiteside is going for anyway. There’s actually a surprising amount of resemblance between herself and Ivins in her later years, so it’s a good fit physically, but again, it’s the way she communicates Ivins’ demeanor and essence that feels correct. This has clearly been a passion project for Whiteside, and it shows in the way she puts herself forth on-stage. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen from her.
I mentioned above how this role is “uncensored” and I feel it necessary to emphasize that. This is the first production Theatre 20 @ Potter Place has produced aimed squarely at adults. There is a fair (but never gratuitous) amount of coarse language used, something that would never fly in most other theatre productions around here. That’s not a judgment against those other establishments, however, merely an observation.
It’s no secret that many community theatre productions (all over, not just in Tyler) either tone down the material or pull their punches, so to speak, so it’s honestly more than a little refreshing to see an outfit take something of a risk by being relatively brash with its output.
Between the work that Theatre 20 is doing with “Red Hot Patriot” and its upcoming slate of productions, as well as the projects Mary Hill is putting together (she last directed “The Amen Corner”), Tyler has a fascinating community of “independent” theatre slowly beginning to take shape.
“Red Hot Patriot” opens at 7:30 tonight at Theatre 20 @ Potter Place. The theater is located on the ground floor of the Energy Center Building, 719 W. Front St. in Tyler. The entrance is at the back of the building. Tickets are $15. This show is not intended for young audiences.
For additional performance dates and times or to reserve tickets online, visit www.apextheatre20.com.