PHILADELPHIA — Stage and screen star Kathleen Turner isn't as tall as Molly Ivins was. She isn't as loud or as imposing as the late Texas writer and humorist. But when Turner, starring in the new one-woman play, "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins," kicks up her red cowboy boots, throws back her head, smiles and says drily, "I am known for my joie de vivre, as we say in Waco," she becomes Molly Ivins.
In a great tour de force, Turner delivers an extraordinary performance as Ivins, who passed away in 2007 after a high-profile career as a liberal newspaper columnist and author. Ivins was 62 when she died in Austin after several rounds with breast cancer.
She left behind a large body of work that had her signature Texas perspective.
"Thank God for Texas," says Turner as Ivins in the play. "It is a harmless perversion."
The world premiere play, by twin sisters Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, both long-time journalists, had a nearly sold-out five week run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre, from March 19 to April 25, including a one-week extension due to popular demand.
The play will then be on hiatus, as Turner has another play and a film commitment, said Amy Lebo, marketing and communications director for the Philadelphia Theater Company.
Many Texans and friends of Ivins' from around the country made the trip to Philadelphia, including a force of 60-strong on April 17 organized by the Texas Democracy Foundation, which publishes "The Texas Observer," a crusading left-wing publication where Ivins first shot to fame.
Dabbing their eyes with tissues after the play, Pat Smothers of Austin and Sandy Richards of San Francisco spoke about their feelings. "It was a little sadder than I thought it would be," said Smothers. "It had so much of the spirit of Molly. Kathleen Turner did a terrific job."
Richards, a close friend of Ivins,' said, "That was just a glimpse of the great Molly we knew." Turner, she said, "did a very good job." And Susan Morris of Austin summed up Turner's performance: "I thought she nailed it."
Carlton Carl, another long-time Ivins' friend from Texas, is on the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation.
"I thought Kathleen Turner was as close as anybody I can think of, of being Molly. The voice, the attitude, her posture, her movements, the laugh. . . She was terrific."
"I think the audience appreciated the humor and the passion that Molly had," said Carl, who traveled twice to Philadelphia to see the play.
The play opens with Turner sitting in what can only be called a 1950s era newsroom with a manual typewriter as she talks about writin' — which really, she explains, is 75 percent thinkin,' The play uses real pictures of Ivins and her family on screens as Turner points to them and explains them — a risky device since there is no mistaking that Ivins and Turner look different — but one that works because of the actress' command of the character.
Ivins' strength as a writer was her humor and sense of outrage at injustice and the authors do a good job pulling some of her anecdotes and celebrated sayings, although the narrative is, at times, disjointed.
There are many of Ivins' gem quips, though, such as her slam at then-U.S. Rep. James Collins, a Dallas Republican. She wrote, "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day."
The play acknowledges the writer's battle with alcohol. Turner delivers one of Ivins' more self-revealing moments as a famously enthusiastic drinker: "Alcohol may lead nowhere but it sure is the scenic route."
Ivins worked at a number of Texas newspapers, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 1992 to 2001, and was syndicated nationally. She had a brief, disastrous experience at the New York Times — "they fired my ass" — for being, well, too colorful.
Sent to New Mexico to write about a "community chicken-killing festival," Ivins called it a "gang-pluck," The New York Times editor was not amused.
Ivins loved to prick people — especially people in power and got great material from the foibles of the Texas Legislature.
"My legacy will be to help folks be a pain in the ass to people in power," she said.
And so, in this play, she has.