Karis Wiggins channels the life of Texas journalist Molly Ivins in a witty solo show
First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.” Such was the late journalist-gadfly Molly Ivins in speaking of the breast cancer that eventually ended her life. Her wit never failed in facing either absurdity or the gravest perils. “Any pain can be endured,” wrote Isak Dinesen, “if it can be put into a story.” Ivins could have added in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, if it can be put into a syndicated humorous political column. She endured significant pain and mountains of stupidity, and they all gave her an endless supply of raw material.
Red Hot Patriot, the one-woman show by sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, opened in Philadelphia with Kathleen Turner two years ago, and has since gone on to New York City and several Texas venues. Despite the implications of the title, Patriot turns out to be much deeper than a mere compilation of her best lines, a la Tom Lysaght’s dreary Nobody Don’t Like Yogi at Syracuse Stage eight years ago. The Texas-based Engels knew Ivins, and they can’t reduce her to a wisecracking jokester, like Kathy Griffin with an accent. Ivins was a hard-working scribe in the shrinking print media. When she made you laugh it called for more perspiration than inspiration. And her wit was sharpened for the big stories in Texas and American politics.
For this Studio 24 production at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., director Gerard Moses begins the action by disconnecting preconceptions and turning away many of the implications of the title. Solo player Karis Wiggins enters without her signature cowboy books, goes over to a 1940s-era oak desk with a manual typewriter, puts up her bare feet, and says nothing. Eventually, she admits she’s trying to write a column about her authoritarian father. More silence. “I’m letting it steep,” she says, “not the same thing as stewing.” Across the stage at left is a vintage Associated Press M-15 teletype machine banging out the news. A bell signals that an important story is coming in. And it’s about her.
Like Mark Twain, whose heir she was, Molly Ivins the writer spoke in a created voice. She inhabited the body of someone born Mary Tyler Ivins (1944-2007), the child of right-wing privilege in River Oaks, Houston’s most affluent suburb. After graduating from St. John’s School, Houston’s most exclusive, she attended Massachusetts’ Smith College, alma mater of Nancy Reagan. Such details do not mean that Ivins’ populist progressivism was not genuine. The Engel sisters have Ivins remind us that before Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill delivered Texas to a monolith Republicanism, Texas was inhabited exclusively by Democrats who came in conservative and liberal wings that actually talked to each other. Despite the claims of right-wing detractors, Ivins spoke in an idiom she had heard all her life, just not at home. Her love for Texas, “gritty, down on the ground,” was boundless. Her liberalism was of native vintage: “Fish gotta swim, hearts gotta bleed.”
Ivins’ estrangement from her immediate family might not be a major theme of Red Hot Patriot, but it arises significantly at the beginning and the end. When Ivins’ mother told her she looked like a St. Bernard among the greyhounds, she didn’t need an interpreter to know that wasn’t a compliment. Her inability to come to terms with her martinet father, agonized in the opening scene, reappears at the end. Her bleeding heart was never content despite the smile in her rhetoric.
The rarity of Ivins’ idiom made her hard to place outside Texas, leading to unhappy experiences in Minneapolis and Washington. Despite making five times her previous wage at The New York Times, she knew they objected to her bare feet and her dog. Her attempts to add color to the gray lady, like describing a New Mexico community chicken-killing as a “gang-pluck,” went unappreciated.
Still, she was tickled that the Times saluted her southwestern authenticity. When Elvis Presley died unexpectedly at 42 in 1977, no prepared obituary was on hand, and so Ivins was called in to produce one pronto. The result was a masterpiece parody of restrained Times style in which the King is always referred to as “Mr. Presley,” with polite mention of his recent excessive caloric intake.
The wit that made Ivins famous appeared mostly in Texas publications like The Houston Chronicle or “Cronk,” the Dallas Times Herald, the Fort Worth Star Telegram and The Texas Observer, later to be syndicated in more than 400 dailies, including Syracuse’s The Post Standard. She might write on national topics but more often she focused on the Texas legislature, the “Austin funhouse” or “Lege.” Despite her calling the Lege a “laboratory for bad government,” poisonous notions developed there—like vilifying public employees and the mass firing of teachers—did indeed become national, as did players like George W. Bush and Rick Perry, her “Governor Good Hair.”
In program notes solo player Karis Wiggins makes clear that she was determined to bring Red Hot Patriot to Syracuse as soon as she saw Kathleen Turner in it. Wiggins herself is widely recognized as one of our strongest community players, with a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award for Agnes of God (2009), but comedy has not been perceived as one of her long suits. It does not have to be. The Engels’ script includes Ivins’ line that a female journalist does not have to talk like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, a role written by a man and based on a man in The Front Page.
Christopher Hitchens was pilloried two years ago for saying that women were not natural comedians, a blockheaded generalization refuted by the works of Chelsea Handler, Dorothy Parker and Moms Mabley. What he should have said is that comediennes have a different rhythm from comedians, which Wiggins reflects.
Despite the kick-ass promise of the title, Wiggins’ Ivins often speaks in falling cadences, more like Rita Rudner than Don Rickles with curls. There’s almost more regret than venom in her best zingers, such as her description of Republican representative James M. Collins: “If his I.Q. slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” In any case, Ivins was a writer rather than a performer. Her gig on 60 Minutes, going head-to-head with conservative comic P.J. O’Rourke, glossed over here, was a bust. Wiggins delivers Ivins’ lines better than she did herself.
Although Red Hot Patriot is a one-woman show, it gains from
important contributions, such as Karl Sperber’s wordless but ominous
copy boy. Robb Sharpe’s and J.T. Lee’s set and lighting design bring
home some hilarious visual gags. On the Ivins’ family photograph’s the
real Molly’s plump face has been replaced with Wiggins’ longer mug.
This production runs through Saturday, Nov. 26. See Times Table for information.