Biographical one-person shows aren't always the stuff of thrilling drama. But if you take a legendary actress and give her some witty material written by one of our country's great political columnists, it is at least the makings of an amusing and edifying evening. Kathleen Turner is the key to making Berkeley Rep's latest production, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins more than a humdrum tour of a journalist's career, and I'd challenge anyone who disagreed that Turner remains an incredible talent with a magnetic stage presence that feels as aggressive as ever.
Turner, who has an Oscar nomination, two Tony nominations, and a Golden Globe to her name and who can currently be seen in Dumb and Dumber To has had a healthy career as a stage actress the last decade or so, as the sultry, smoky voice that helped make her an 1980s sex symbol has aged into something gruffer and downright masculine. As longtime Texas political writer Ivins, Turner slips easily into a Texas drawl and never once lets us remember that this is the same woman who beat Michael Douglas into submission in The War of the Roses, or comically slaughtered a dozen people in 1994's Serial Mom.
Ivins, who died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 63, spent many years working for just about every news organization in Texas, and six years as a staffer at the New York Times in the late 70s and early 80s. A constant critic of George W. Bush (whom she nicknamed "Shrub" and who she said "is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America... We can find no evidence that it has ever occurred to him to question whether it is wise to do what big business wants.") and the Iraq War, Ivins went down swinging, and this new play by Margaret and Allison Engel does an admirable job of portraying the woman through her own words.
Given that it is a biographical one-woman show, told in retrospect as if from beyond the grave, it has its awkward and less awkward stage-y moments. One device that works well is a vintage AP wire machine set to one side of the stage which, at various points throughout the piece, dings its signature bells (3 for breaking news, 4 for a bulletin, 10 for a major event) and spits out "news items" from Ivins' past, in chronological order. She takes us through her years covering the Texas legislature for the scrappy liberal Texas Observer, her famed obituary of Elvis Presley in the Times, the death of her father, and her own cancer diagnosis all with equal good humor and snappy patter. Examples: "I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults." Also: "The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion."
If you can hear Turner's signature rasp delivering lines like those, and that sounds like a good time, then I highly recommend the show. It comes in under an hour and a half without an intermission, and the audience is almost guaranteed to jump to their feet at curtain call for that reason, and for the fact that seeing Turner on stage in a setting this intimate is an undisputed privilege. Also, it's great to be reminded that this is a woman who knows how to land a joke.
Red Hot Patriot plays through January 4. Get tickets here, and if you're under 30, remember to seek out the special discount.