Red Hot Patriot's kick-ass portrayal stays true to Molly Ivins's character

Molly Ivins was a familiar figure in Colorado. For a while, she was the Rocky Mountain bureau chief for the New York Times. The staid gray lady had hired her away from the Texas Observer to spice up its pages, but the editors decided fairly rapidly that they didn't want quite that much spice. In Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-ass Wit of Molly Ivins, Ivins describes being assigned Elvis Presley's obituary by the Times, since she was the sole reporter there who loved his music. The obit is actually an amazingly lifeless piece of work in which, as instructed, Ivins dutifully refers to the King as Mr. Presley throughout. You can see why this sharp-witted, raucous talent left the job.

Ivins was also a regular at the University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs, where she could be found year after year laughing and holding forth between sessions to a group of acolytes, and where her panels and speeches were always thronged.

Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 62, and arguably a certain style of journalism — and a certain mystique — died with her. Journalists used to like thinking of themselves as tough-minded, hard drinkers, protectors of the vulnerable, unafraid to confront power and expose malfeasance. Of course, those mythic newsrooms were almost entirely male. Among other things, Ivins helped break the gender barrier, and she did it as a dame, a broad, a liberal in a deep red state, a fiery populist. She loved skewering members of the Texas legislature, and they — as she freely admitted — gave her an awful lot to work with. It was Ivins who dubbed George W. Bush "Shrub," and who, having watched his performance as governor, warned the nation loudly and frequently not to make him its president.

After Ivins's death, twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel decided to immortalize her life and words for the stage; both are journalists with credits ranging from the Washington Post to the San Jose Mercury News. Such is the writer's reputation that they snared Kathleen Turner to play her in the first-ever production in Philadelphia. Zeik Saidman, a Denver organizer and a friend of Ivins's, was determined to show the piece here before election day 2012; he tried for over two years to find a venue before connecting with Brian Freeland of the LIDA Project, who offered his space and agreed to direct. The show sold out within days, and is moving to the Aurora Fox this coming weekend for an extended run.

Red Hot Patriot begins with Ivins at her desk, attempting to write a column about her father — a man as stubborn and tough as herself, but with politics diametrically opposed to her own. This leads her to reminisce about her life and work. The playwrights quote freely from her writing, and we get nuggets of her wit throughout. We hear parodistic descriptions of various politicians and power figures, and listen to her describe, with a mix of mockery and real feeling, the dog she named Shit and kept with her for fourteen years. There are serious moments: Her first love died in a motorcycle accident, another was shot in the Vietnam War — a war that she passionately opposed. There's also her realization that alcohol has become a problem for her, and her response, both somber and funny, to the cancer diagnosis. The ending is a touch sentimental, the exhortation from one of her columns to take to the streets against the Vietnam War a little predictable, but these elements are earned, and the evening would be poorer without them. And you couldn't find a better actor to portray Ivins than Rhonda Brown. Though her persona is a little less raw and chaotic, she brings great vitality to the role and creates a figure both vulnerable and imposing.

It's hard not to wonder what Ivins would write about the impending election. Having dubbed Rick Perry Governor Goodhair and The Coiffure, what would she have come up with for Mitt Romney? But then, she did nail what we're seeing: "Politics isn't about left and right; it's about up and down," she wrote. "The few are screwing the many." And as for her message, we're clear about that too: Kick ass. Fight the good fight. And have a great time doing it.

 
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