“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Motivating, uplifting, powerful, comical and with several thought-provoking underlying messages – that’s ZACH Theatre’s latest production of Holland Taylor’s “Ann.” The play begins with an archive clip of Ann Richards playing on a screen, delighting the delegates to the 1988 Democratic National Convention with her keynote address, and now famous quote. Setting the theme for the full-on life story of Texas’ 45th governor, the ZACH audience is immediately drawn onto the set of a college graduation, when actress Libby Villari enters the stage dressed in a vivid pink suit – and sporting the Richards’ signature big white hair. A bold one-woman show, Villari, who is also known for Friday Night Lights, does an exceptional job of delivering the entire two-hour production, captivating and engaging her audience.
Villari tells the stories of Richards’ childhood, with such humor and empathy. If you like Texas humor and politics (which often go hand in hand), you’ll appreciate the production. For example, Richards jokes that George Washington was born in Texas, but then he chopped down a mesquite tree. He obviously “couldn’t tell a lie” and after his dad found out about the tree, they had to move to Virginia. George asked if it was because of the tree, and his dad replied, “No, if you can’t tell a lie, you can’t live in Texas!”
Humor is consistent, yet unpredictable, throughout the play. Villari does a good job of setting the scene for Richards’ early days, when she probably never would have guessed she’d ever be governor of Texas. It is noted that Richards was born in 1933 in Lacy Lakeview, Texas, during a time when women often didn’t have careers. From the stage, Richards explains that if she’d known she was going to be governor of one of the “largest economies in the world,” she’d have “fallen off the porch!”
Several underlying messages are present throughout the play, and it gave me such an appreciation and respect for Ann Richards and the legacy she has left both nationally and in Texas. At a crossroad in her life, when Richards decided to run for her first political office, Villari voices how the governor-to-be “voted for herself, but didn’t know it.”
The theme, “Follow your dreams, take a chance and bet on yourself!” is probably my favorite message in the play. Toward the end of the play, Richards encourages people to get in politics, especially women and minorities. She talks about the strengths women can bring to the office. For example, the gift of consensus and multi-tasking, that women bring to their families and how that translates into political office and public affairs. In a world where women now have more opportunities, but some workplaces still have so-called “boys clubs” with a “boys will boys” mentality, and people sometimes turn a blind eye to unnecessary disrespect toward women, I found this message to be particularly uplifting and necessary.
Honesty and ethics, and a desire to leave the world a better place are additional themes in the play. As her character, Villari talks about how Richards wanted to make a difference and she wanted to serve as a voice for other people. “We did what we wanted, and we didn’t look back!” she exclaims, talking about how Richards paved room for more opportunities for minorities and the gay and lesbian community.
A tough cookie, Richards held her staff to high standards, but the play clues the audience in on a little secret about her level of kindness. For example, she has a particularly rough conversation with one staff member, David Miller. But later she calls another staff member and instructs her to “add David Miller” to the list of people she is buying new boots for at a West Texas boot sale. “If he asks why you need his shoe size, tell him he’s not on a need to know basis in this office!” Richards says firmly.
I especially loved this play and it will be a tough act to follow. It’s my favorite production I have seen in the last two years at ZACH. I think the rest of the audience equally enjoyed it, as I have never seen such a strong showing of applause. Perfect for a family outing centered around both entertainment and education, I would recommend anyone with teenage children take their kids to see “Ann.”
“Ann” runs through September 8 at ZACH in Austin. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased online.
Cover: Libby Villari in “Ann” at ZACH Theatre. Photo Kirk Tuck