Main Street Theater's Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins Showcases the Wit of a Texan Gadfly

Read our interview with Sara Gaston.

The setup:

The life and times of famed Texan journalist Molly Ivins are chronicled in a one-woman show at Main Street Theater, spiced by samples of invective aimed at the idiocy of elected officials.

The execution:

Sara Gaston plays Ivins -- she looks a lot like Ivins when younger, and keeps this persona throughout, as there is no attempt to characterize visually the changes wrought by experience, fame and hard drinking. We are told about them but don't see them. Gaston is eminently likable, perhaps more so than Ivins, whose self-assigned role was as an irritating "gadfly of the state," as Plato described Socrates. Ivins relished the role of attack dog, and the incisive wit of her writing seems at variance from the persona of Gaston, who might be portraying the charming head of the local PTA.

The life of Ivins has been organized into a play by the twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, themselves journalists, and the script is largely chronological, as Gaston recounts Ivins's early family life with an articulate and dominating father, her variety of jobs at Texas newspapers and The New York Times as well, and her evolution into a nationally syndicated columnist and best-selling author. Examples of Ivins's rapier wit liven the performance, and I won't spoil the fun of being surprised by them -- they are many and delightful -- but will cite one example already well-known, about a Texas legislator: "If his IQ slips any lower, we're going to have to water him twice a day."

There are moments of drama -- the death of lovers, for example -- and Gaston describes these, but is less successful in conveying the depths of Ivins's anguish at these and other losses. Her battle with breast cancer is bravely described, and Gaston captures the mixture of wit holding at bay the deep pain of one's body turning against itself. And Ivins's courage in publicly recording the treatment and surgery is admirable, and well-portrayed. Her battle with alcohol is covered in a glancing reference.

The set by Jeffrey S. Lane is simple, perhaps overly so, a bare office with a teletype machine, and there is an incidental character of an office boy (Mark B. Robbins) who tears off the print-out to deliver it to Molly. There are two screens which show slides, usually of Texas governors or U.S. presidents, but these add little zest, and edge the production away from a professional level. Patti Bean directed the proceedings, and she and Gaston might find ways to make Ivins seem more spontaneous, and the moments of passion more credible.

Director and performer are handicapped by a script that contains far too much cheer-leading, and too much preaching, especially at the finale. Ivins knew that battles were won by skewering the opponents to make them seem ridiculous, rather than by wagging the finger at them, but the Engel authors seem to have forgotten that. Ivins was a larger-than-life character, fully Texas-size; her life lends itself to the excitement of drama, and her wit to the medium of stage, but the definitive play that does her justice is yet to be written.

The verdict:

The life of famed Texan journalist Molly Ivins is chronicled in an enjoyable tour of reminiscences, and abundant examples of her trenchant wit make this docudrama both amusing and insightful. Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins continues through July 1 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Blvd. For ticketing or information, call 713-524-6706 or visit

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Tommaney