Sally Edmundson Supplies the Tartness and the Heart in Ann at Stages

Sally Edmundson in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Ann.
Sally Edmundson in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Ann. Photo by Os Galindo
Well, shoot, little darlin', if this one-woman bio play about Texas governor Ann Richards isn't the cutest pick of the litter. Soft and cuddly with those twinkly eyes and fluffy big white fur, this little puppy with boundless energy nips at you with a twangy bark that brings a nostalgic smile. Its pedigree is uncontested. However, this little cutey has no bite. This is a great trait if you're a dog, not so welcomed if you're a play.

Warmly embraced by Houston acting icon Sally Edmundson, Richards is a powerhouse of activity, progressive beliefs, and sharp down-home wit. She will not abide anyone who doesn't share her passion, joy, and uncanny zest for politics. She is a one-woman show all to her herself, and Edmundson slips under Richards' skin with a flair that's downright magnetic. Underneath, both women are showbiz babies, holding and relishing the spotlight by unbridled talent, skill, and unvarnished determination. The eyes of Texas are upon them, and Edmundson does shine bright.

It is Richards who receives less of a gleam from playwright Holland Taylor. Taylor wrote Ann as her own vehicle, receiving a 2013 Tony Award nomination for her portrayal. Lauded for her prickly and soignee WASP characters, especially the acerbic mother on CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Taylor was a natural fit for Richards with her barbed wit and intelligent style. Most of the dialogue is verbatim Richards.

Richards stood for and defended against others less like herself all her life, and no one, not the men in charge or society's obstinance, was going to stop her. In a meteoric rise, she galvanized Texas politics. She loved being governor. The most effective sequence in the play is Ann in her Austin office barking orders to her secretary over the intercom, signing endless letters, playfully schmoozing with President Clinton on the phone, making her male underling cry, and wrangling together her grown children for a family holiday weekend – a whirligig of daily office stress and steamroller tactics. But for all the empathy and admiration, Taylor's play remains too soft and comfortable.

Richards fought to accomplish the seemingly impossible – an exceptional career in Texas politics as a Democrat and a woman – and her road to national stardom had many sharp turns and obstacles, many brought on by herself. All the roadblocks are enumerated (her drinking, her failed marriage, the fateful cancer), the joys, too (her loving children, her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic convention that catapulted her into the limelight, her abiding admiration for US Representative Barbara Jordan, her inspiring parents), but everything's checked off like on a list. It's all highlights, warmly remembered yet unexplored. She's portrayed as such a force of nature, nothing will stop her, it wouldn't dare.

Surprisingly, there's not a whiff of arch-nemesis George W. Bush, who beat her in her second run for governor in 1994. She famously called him “shrub,” and “that young Bush boy.” The election was a defining moment for her and Texas. Why its sparks are absent is a mystery.

Director Kenn McLaughlin keeps Ann buzzing with crisp sense of pace, while Edmundson supplies the tartness and heart. Eminently empathetic, this one-woman show keeps us entertained if not thoroughly engaged.

Richards was a role model, no doubt about that, issuing a call to arms for sensible, compassionate government. She brooked no nonsense in opponents or advocates. Wise and witty, she showed us a new face for political action and how to achieve it. She'd tell us to go for it. Sic 'em, Ann! Sic 'em, Sally!

Ann continues at  7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through April 8 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $25-$85.

Update, March 15, 2018: Performances of Ann have been extended through April 22, 2018.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover