If the apple never falls far from the tree, as common wisdom has it, no one told the razor-sharp commentator Molly Ivins. Or maybe someone did and - typical of Ivins - she laughed at the idea. Then disproved it.
Ivins was born into a well-to-do, conservative Republican family in Texas. She fell from the tree, brushed herself off, then walked away a head-held-high liberal, precisely as the spot-on Kathleen Turner plays her in the world premiere of Red Hot Patriot. Ivins delighted in challenging people who thought like her parents.
Her pointed reports on American culture and her years of eviscerating - and sometimes shockingly funny - opinion pieces were "mostly back-talk that I wish I had said to my father," the Ivins character tells us in one of several salient lines in the play, whose full title also describes Ivins' talent: Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.
It opened Wednesday in a fluid, no-nonsense production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company. (Red Hot Patriot is the company's second world premiere in a row; the other, Golden Age, was its most recent show, which the company is currently staging at Washington's Kennedy Center.)
I call the production, directed by David Esbjornson, no-nonsense for two reasons. First, the show has none of the strained conceits of many one-character shows. (There's a newsroom copy boy, but he's window dressing, without lines.) Turner, playing Ivins, is pushing out a column, talking about writing, and reliving highs and lows, with help from a few smart projections on a back wall by Maya Ciarrocchi.
Also, no-nonsense reflects Ivins herself, who was 62 when breast cancer killed her in 2007. She was a champion of underdogs, a fighter for equal rights, a mocker of power-abusers, a hater of wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and a woman who relished being a Texan as much as she loved poking fun at being a Texan.
Turner gets it, and also gets it right. Hers is not an imitation of Ivins, but an interpretation of the woman's persona - playful, smart, talented, assured, and as colorful as the language she so fully commands. You could sense Turner easing herself into the character opening night; once she was there, she locked it in.
The tightly composed one-act, by two former reporters, sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, glides on an even keel. It's not a tongue-lashing or anything approaching political diatribe - like Ivins' work generally, it neither welcomes conservatives nor pushes them away. Yet, like her work, it embraces liberalism in the broadest sense of the word.
Ivins was clearly high on America, and in the end, Red Hot Patriot is a full-court press for appreciating the values that red hot patriots first proclaimed in this city more than two centuries past. "You have more political power," the play's Ivins asserts, "than 99 percent of the people who live on this planet."
She used hers via a keyboard at several newspapers, including the New York Times, which hired her for her original voice, then tried to stifle it and fired her. Ivins' columns eventually appeared in more than 300 papers, and her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? was a best-seller.
John Arnone's set for the show has Turner writing in front of three discarded newsroom desks - a sad metaphor for a print age in transition? Let's hope that new generations of red hot patriots will find their own powerful platforms for their passion.
Playing at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, through April 25. Tickets: $25-$69. Information: 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.EndText