There's an unavoidable flaw in the one-woman show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, and that's the fact that it's not written by Ivins herself. The liberal Texas firebrand, whose syndicated columns had run in 400 newspapers by the time she lost her battle with breast cancer in 2007, had a singular style that merged sophisticated political analysis with piss 'n' vinegar. Anyone who puts words into Ivins' mouth that weren't conceived by Ivins' brain can only imitate the inimitable.
Such is the case with twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, the journalists and Ivins devotees whose Red Hot Patriot is a first effort for the stage, having debuted in 2012. It is enjoying its Southeastern premiere from the Women's Theatre Project.
Barbara Bradshaw has the Herculean task of embodying Ivins, situated in, according to the playbill, "the suggestion of a newsroom past its prime." In Terry Lawrence's splintered, evocative set design, newspaper clippings hang from the ceiling above Ivins' desk and cluttered cubicle wall, placed opposite an ancient teletype machine that spits out news bulletins related to Ivins' life. She's trying to complete her final column, about her disapproving father, but those teletype distractions keep arriving, derailing her thought process until she succumbs to what increasingly feels like a purgatorial life review. Every now and then, a silent, unsmiling copy boy (Joseph Franklin) materializes out of the ether to deliver the missives.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, through March 16 at the Willow Theatre at Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton; $25, 561-347-3948; womenstheatreproject.com.
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The Engels deserve credit for sprucing up their solo-show formula with this abstract, supernatural structure, but they falter when returning time and again to Ivins' relationship with her father, which has the effect of reducing the great writer's life ambitions to lingering daddy issues. And the middle of Red Hot Patriot is so congested with references to forgotten Texas politicos that it begins to feel like a regional play for Lone Star State insiders. It's no surprise that the funniest lines are the passages lifted directly from Ivins' articles (like this one, spoken in front of a projected image of Dubya: "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.")
Bradshaw, donning denim togs, red boots, and a curly wig courtesy of costume designer Alberto Arroyo, looks the part of Ivins more than she necessarily sounds it, which in this case is a good thing. She doesn't get hung up on affecting her character's Texas drawl, the way Kathleen Turner did, to scenery-chewing effect, in the play's Philadelphia premiere; as a result, the lines here land with a more efficient impact.
What's important is that Bradshaw captures Ivins' spirit, her spunk, and her political worldview. She becomes animated with outrage when discussing civil rights (or lack thereof), the horrors of the Vietnam War, and the stripping of our liberties, and you get the impression it's Bradshaw, as much as Ivins, vocalizing these opinions. I wanted a bit more of this; Genie Croft's direction keeps the play moving at such an even keel that a few additional emotional spikes would serve it well. And I could have done without the occasional, intrusive musical score, which, in vying for our ears' attention, does Bradshaw no favors.
So, at least in this interpretation, Red Hot Patriot is good, but it's not electric. I kept waiting for the riveting crackle that accompanies the best Ivins columns, not to mention the best plays, solo or otherwise. There may be a bravura production in here somewhere, but this one is missing an essential, almost intangible something. If Ivins were still around, I'm sure she could pinpoint it better than any of us.