Heard on the Hill

Ann Richards goes ‘backwards and in high heels’ at Arena Stage

One-woman show about former Texas governor features Jayne Atkinson of ‘House of Cards’ fame

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann,” running through Aug. 11 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Courtesy Margo Shulman/Arena Stage)

A one-woman show now playing at Arena Stage serves as a reminder of when a Democrat could win statewide in Texas.

“Ann” is a retelling of the life and times of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, whose keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention as a relatively unknown state treasurer propelled her into the spotlight. Alternating between barbed one-liners and folksy charm, she became just the second woman — and the last Democrat to date — to hold the governor’s mansion in the Lone Star State.

“If you give us a chance, we can perform,” Richards said in that 1988 address. “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” 

This latest run of the play pulls off an equally perilous balancing act, thanks to a script by Holland Taylor — who originated the role back in 2011 — and a performance by Jayne Atkinson, known to fans of TV political dramas as Secretary of State Catherine Durant in “House of Cards” or Karen Hayes in “24.”

During a post-show discussion last week, director Kristen van Ginhoven said she had initially reached out to the Tony-nominated Atkinson about possibly collaborating on directing, but Atkinson seized on the role of Richards and wanted to try it herself.

The opening and closing scenes take the form of a commencement address — one that the always engaging and persistent Richards never got to deliver before her death in 2006. But it is the more private moments in between that anchor the roughly hour-and-a-half show.  

Atkinson is at her best during an extended office scene, in which the Texas governor intently works the phones. As she talks with a string of offstage characters, from President Bill Clinton to a young granddaughter named Lily, the audience can hear only Richards’ side.

For veterans of Capitol Hill, the highlight may well be that call with Richards’ granddaughter, which centers on a University of Texas women’s basketball game. The offstage character surfaces again at the end of the play, when Richards delivers a closing appeal for voting and public engagement, along with plaudits for the eulogy given by her granddaughter at her 2006 funeral.

The real Richards, of course, would have good reason to be proud of Lily Adams today — she’s a top Democratic operative in her own right and the communications director for the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

“Ann” will run at Arena Stage through Aug. 11, before moving on to Texas as part of a co-production with the Dallas Theater Center. 

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