Turner and Ivins, ‘Red Hot Patriot,’ a Perfect Match

Kathleen Turner in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. | Photo by Mark Garvin.

It’s hard to doubt that somewhere in the course of a long career of jabbing Texas politicians and officials with the written-word equivalent of a cattle prod that some state senator or party chairman or Bush family hanger-on, with teeth-clenched respect, allowed that she had a set of male equipment, the highest compliment a man can pay a woman he’s not trying to sleep with, but who makes him nervous anyway.

Whatever the case, Molly Ivins didn’t need it. She had something better—flat-out, unrepentant courage.

Now, she’s got something almost as good to help keep her memorable wit and entirely human qualities alive: She’s got Kathleen Turner, who stars as Ivins in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” now at Arena Stage’s Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle Theater through Oct. 28.

It’s as if Ivins, who died in 2007 from breast cancer, was once again delivering political thunderbolts that made you proud, laugh, or squirm, depending on who you were, with her syndicated column, in a long career as a journalist from the New York Times to the Texas Observer.

Turner—movie star, outspoken supporter of liberal and progressive causes, mother, award-winning stage actress, and a still hot memory in the minds of many male movie goers of the 1980s for her performance as the femme fetale in the noirish “Body Heat”—is a perfect fit to march onstage and be Molly Ivins. If Turner’s famous voice—a rough shade deeper than in her “Body Heat” days, but just as impossible to ignore—has an equivalent somewhere, the words in Ivins’s column fit the bill, so it’s terrific that Turner’s speaking her words out loud. They’re going to echo loudly.

There’s a I’ll-do-it-my-way quality to both women. You can hear it over the telephone in an interview with Turner, or the way she tackled a glaring spotlight—“Whoa…can you give me a break here?”—as she sat down for a Newseum event, “An Evening with Kathleen Turner,” moderated by Shelby Coffey III, remembered here as the former Post Style section editor, and in the company of Margaret Engel, who co-wrote “Red Hot Patriot” with her twin sister Alison.

“That was fun,” she said of the Newseum event, “I like having fun.” Over the phone, the voice is down to a light roar, like a mother bear in a relaxed mode.

“I think we share some things. We have, I know, the same outlook, similar causes and political tendencies,” she said. “I am, if you did not know it, a member of People for the American Way. I am a chairman for Planned Parenthood. I support Amnesty International, among other causes.” Ivins wore her politics, which was liberal mixed in with a little verbal rage and lots of passion and in-your-face-humor.

Verbally, or on paper, both women share a common outspokenness, a big life story and a bigger-than-life-persona.

They could make an impression one way or another: Ivins with her 6-foot-1 presence and bright red hair; Turner with her physical sensuality, her voice, her acting chops, her movie star quality and directness. They both have led somewhat turbulent lives. It’s the nature of the beast when you become a movie star early on, although Turner objects to the “overnight” description. “I’d been working for quite a while. So, it’s not like I hadn’t been around,” she said of her, well, overnight rise to mega-stardom in “Body Heat.” “It was disconcerting, sure, with all the attention, the movie star thing, and it’s tough to handle.”

Her body of film work contains more unforgettable gems, which overrides the dross. You couldn’t get a better jump stardom jump start than “Body Heat,” “The Man With Two Brains” (in which she was as funny as Steve Martin), “Crimes of Passion,” “Romancing the Stone”, the hit woman to Jack Nicholson’s hit man in “Prizzi’s Honor,” and the remarkable movie about a marriage gone bad and mad, “The War of the Roses.”

“We [Michael Douglas and director Danny DeVito] were all proud of that,” she said. “That ending, the three of us had to fight for that, we battled with the studio on it and won.”In “Roses”, the movie took itself to where it was headed all along, and it was not a happy ending.

If you look for both women on YouTube, you see something else, the quality of sharp humor, insistence that attention must be paid. It’s mixed with tough honesty, evidence of big lives lived richly, with wind warnings.

“Molly could fill a room. She had presence. She cared passionately about politics. She had a huge heart,” Turner said of Ivins. “It’s important to me that I do her justice when I’m on that stage being her. The humor has to be there, and it is. Doesn’t matter where you are, people respond to that. I admired her immensely, no question.”

Ivins was no question, liberal-left, or as she’s quoted as saying in the press materials: “I am a liberal and proud of it. Fish gotta swim, and hearts gotta bleed.”

To her, work was everything: she left the New York Times, or was let go, depends who’s talking, to return to work in Texas, a base from which she blasted Texas politics and political figures.

Listen to Turner talk about the stage—where she was a triumphant Martha in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee—you can hear some of the passion that Ivins must have felt when the words were rolling sharply and perfectly. “There is nothing like it,” she said of being on stage. “There’s a connection, a kind of conspiracy with the audience, that you are here at a moment that will never be repeated, that this is special, original, one-of-a-kind. I feel that way every night. It’s always fresh.”

For Ivins, Turner said she did not do any special research. “The words are already there, and you have to trust that. But I want the humor to be out there. I like making people laugh, making them crack up.”Things were not always top-of-the-world for Turner. In 1992 she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating disease which left her in constant pain. “I was told I might not walk again,” she said.

Still, she’s persevered. She remains in the ring, on stage, active in politics, and here in Washington, you can expect to see her at numerous events. And until the end of October, you can find her on stage at the Kogod Cradle, resurrecting Molly, making people think, making people laugh as the 2012 election campaign rolls on to its conclusion like a severe weather warning.

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