Holland Taylor, the classy, Emmy Award-winning actress, met Dorothy Ann Willis Richards, the twinkly-eyed former governor of Texas, only briefly. "But when she died," Taylor said over coffee recently, "I remained upset for months as though she were someone personally important to me."
More than anything, Taylor says, that feeling led to the new one-woman show arriving in Chicago this weekend for a pre-Broadway tryout (the show does not yet have an announced Broadway theater for the spring, but that remains the current plan). "Ann" has already been seen in a couple of venues in Texas; it was first seen in Galveston last December. Taylor got this show going in Galveston and, subsequently, at the Paramount Theatre in Austin using much of her own money.
But now New York producer Bob Boyett has agreed to take over the project and shepherd it to Broadway. The Chicago run will be the first formally under Boyett's producing aegis, and Wednesday's official opening at the Bank of America Theatre will mark the first time this piece will really hit the national radar. For Taylor, there is a lot riding on the next couple of weeks.
Certainly, Chicago will be a significant test of the show's popular appeal. It's one thing to sell tickets to a show about Ann Richards in Texas, where she enjoys near-mythic status in certain circles, but entirely another to do so in one of the 49 other states.
Taylor, a star of the CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men," knows something about having a co-worker — that would be Charlie Sheen — hitting the national radar. But she'd rather talk about a political great than a tabloid mainstay. "In the play, Ann Richards is talking to the audience," Taylor said. "Was there ever anyone more suited to that?"
Richards' numerous fans would surely agree. And it's toward those fellow admirers of an iconic liberal political force in the generally conservative Lone Star State that "Ann" is clearly aimed. Taylor/Richards does not aim to be a "Frost/Nixon." At the same time, though, the aim is to stay away from explicitly partisan politics, focusing instead on Richards as a singular, trailblazing individual.
When Broadway in Chicago first announced "Ann," it did so under the show's original title, "Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards." The subsequent change in title was a smart move; to call a show "an affectionate portrait" is to telegraph both an agenda and an apparent lack of drama. When an audience comes to see "Ann," the piece will at least have been set up as an honest picture. "I try to represent her accurately," Taylor said. "I think I have a feel for her voice."
That voice has been extensively researched. Taylor says she spoke, over more than two years, to more than 80 people from Richards' life, including family members, friends, and political allies and adversaries, and also sifted through "a mountain" of written material. Many of those who knew Richards personally saw the piece when it played in Austin and, Taylor says, a number of them came backstage to say how accurately she'd captured her gal.
"People said that doing the show in Austin was like shooting fish in a barrel," Taylor said. "Are you kidding? You don't want to get it wrong for the people who knew her best."
And there are certainly both conflict and broader issues contained in Richards' remarkable life and career, which ended with her death at age 73 in 2006.
Few women of her generation emerged as such powerhouse political forces. "In a lot of people's minds," Taylor said, "she was always supposed to be stuffing envelopes and getting coffee."
Sunday through Dec. 4 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.; $20-$85 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com
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