When Molly Ivins died in 2007 at the age of 62, she left behind a pretty big hole in a lot of lives. The firebrand liberal journalist had many friends, and among them was actress Kathleen Turner who has been honoring that connection by playing Ivins in Turner’s one-woman show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins that opened late last week at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. It’s a lovely heart-felt performance from Turner whose gravelly broken voice fits in well with the Texas twang she affects in recreating Ivins' speech. The show itself, at just over 70 minutes in one act, is lean and simple. Turner as Ivins recounts the major landmarks in her life with a dollop of psychological reflection. Ivins' own words are used by authors Margaret and Allison Engel more often than not, which helps capture not only her wit but the cadence of her writing. All of this takes place in a newsroom office where Ivins sits at a desk in front of other desks and chairs that have been packed up or removed and placed along the back wall. There’s a screen at the back that fills with faces and images from the writer’s past as she goes along until her story comes to its inevitable conclusion.
Ivins' writing is quite funny and the show does contain its share of laughs. But perhaps the most admirable thing about the show is that it captures Ivins’ undaunted moral and political spirit as well. The selected writings name some of the names Ivins made her career by calling out in the pages of newspapers, and the show is filled with the kind of rousing pleas the author made to her readers over the year about the importance of public political life and her advocacy for progressive causes. Her attacks on both Reagan and Bush are revisited here and the Los Angeles crowd responded in kind. Granted all of these elements - the social criticism, the autobiography, and homespun humor - can get in the way of one another. There is a real lack of dramatic development in the show outside of Ivins’ biographical timeline and some of the personal psychology revisited in the script can seem forced. Neither of the Engel sisters are playwrights but have spent their entire careers as journalists and Red Hot Patriot sounds like a magazine article and can be particularly clumsy with some of its framing devices. But while the show may not work on the level of a unified dramatic experience, it does serve as a rather painful reminder about how much this country has changed over the last 30 years. Gone is Ivins’ world of newspapers and journalists who viewed their primary role in the world as questioning the truth of what people in authority tell us. It sounds simple, but Ivins’ brand of insight is a rare and precious commodity when so much of the media work largely to pass on approved talking points. Red Hot Patriot reminds us of that world and and asks the audience not to just nostalgically memorialize its passing.