Graphic: Houston Chronicle

What if Kathleen Turner had been asked to portray Molly Ivins 20 or 30 years ago?

“I really couldn’t have done it,” she told an audience at the Philadelphia Theater Company this week.

Turner, in sneakers and black pants, was talking about Red Hot Patriot, the play they’d just seen in which she portrays the salty Texas journalist. “This is a mature woman,” she said of her friend Ivins. “She was 62 when she died, and she was certainly old enough to have had a life of experiences.”

Regardless of whether she could have handled the role back then, Turner, 55, was mesmerizing last night as she evoked both Ivins and the rough-and-tumble world she spent her life describing.

As the curtain rises, Turner sits behind a hulking black manual typewriter as if behind a bar, a nearby cigarette sending up plumes of smoke.  Behind her,  an assemblage of empty and discarded desks. When she says “I’m writing,” one might take it for a joke.

But when she stands up in her blood-red cowboy boots, lights another cigarette, looks out at the audience from under a a curly red wig, and drawls “This is what writing looks like,” you suddenly know two things: this is what it feels like to meet Molly Ivins, and to be a writer on deadline.

For the next 75 minutes, Turner incarnates both Ivins’ persona and her multiple passions. Prompted by updates from a clacking Associated Press machine, the play delves into what Ivins  loved best — Texas, newspapering, the First Amendment — and what she spent her life fighting: racism, war, hypocrisy and the cancer that ultimately killed her. Throughout, we’re kept laughing by Ivins’ take-no-prisoners sense of humor, as promised in the play’s full title: Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.

But what was most surprising was how often the play dares to be not funny at all.

Sure, the audience heard about Ivins being fired from the New York Times for referring (in print) to a country-fair communal chicken butchering as a “gang pluck.” We roared at Turner/Ivins’ imitation of publisher Abe Rosenthal and chuckled when she told off “my old friend Bob Bullock,” the Democratic speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, for deciding to coach the one Republican he felt he could work with: a young George W. Bush.  Dubya’s smiling image pains the audience regardless of political perspective, because it pains her — perhaps even more than watching her wave around her wig during chemotherapy, as projected on the stage’s back wall.

The play’s Ivins brightens up when poking fun at what she calls “the Ledge” (for Texas Legislature), or talking about ordinary citizens who organize themselves even when everyone else disagrees with them. She tells of her days at the Texas Observer in the 1970s, when she and the editor had no money for hotels but were always welcomed at the homes of subscribers. “They’d say, ‘With the Observer? C’mon out to our house,’ and by the time we showed up they’d gone and invited the other two liberals in the whole town and we’d party.” And her voice grows almost reverent when she talks about arriving in small Southern towns on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union,  where a handful of people had decided to organize a chapter of the ACLU.

That last sentiment is what moved Kathleen Turner–a longtime ACLU supporter and board member of the civil liberties nonprofit People for the American Way–to jump at the chance to do a one-woman show about Ivins, as she told the audience after the March 30 show. “I knew Molly,” she said. “It was the thought of keeping her alive–a way to honor her. That’s what appealed to me about this.”

When asked, “Have you ever done anything as political as this piece we’re doing?” Turner demurred.  It’s not in her mission as an actor, she said, “to sway people’s minds in that way. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them THINK, sure. But tell them WHAT to think? NO!”

Asked by an audience member how she developed such a full-blown, physical portrayal of Ivins, Turner smiled. “The cowboy boots help.” More seriously, she said, Ivins, at 6’2″ even taller than Turner, “had a very distinctive, kind of gangly set of movements for a girl… Once that kind of physicality gets inside you, the rest is a lot easier.”

Not as easy but just as appropriate, she added, was the play’s elegiac tone. “Molly really had that gravitas,” she said. “She told jokes, sure, but she always said the jokes were a means toward the end–to make the truth more bearable.”

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins runs through April 18 at the Philadelphia Theater Company. Look for a WVFC interview with the playwrights, veteran journalists Allison and Margaret Engel, next week.

Chris Lombardi is the editor of Women’s Voices for Change.