Kathleen Turner takes on Molly Ivins

1417217238RP2.jpgKathleen Turner channels  a media icon

“Alcohol gets you nowhere,” the woman sprawled with a bottle of booze on Berkeley Rep’s Roda stage declares.  “But it’s the scenic route,” she adds with a wry twist of lips.

The line got a big laugh on opening night, from an audience that had come to see an icon playing an icon: Kathleen Turner as mouthy media heroine, Molly Ivins, in Margaret and Allison Engel’s Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, drawn from the journalist’s writings.  Ivins was somewhere left of Ralph Nader, so what better place than Berkeley to revisit her hilariously acerbic take on American life?

Turner originated the role and has played it on and off since 2010.  With her height (Ivins was six feet tall) her vivid physical presence and her gusto, she’s a great fit for the part.  Born in 1944, Ivins was vanquished by breast cancer in 2007 after a long battle with the disease, but before she succumbed she lived the life of an engaged patriot, taking arms against ignorance and stupidity with the most effective weapon of all: words.

Those words were strong and slangy, often drawn from the frank vernacular of her home state, Texas, with which she had a love/hate relationship.  Ivins didn’t pull punches; she was a pistol, and she never fired blanks.  She nicknamed George W. Bush, with whom she had attended high school, “Shrub,” and she dubbed Rick Perry “Governor Goodhair.”  Of Dan Quayle she said, “If you put that man’s brains in a bumblebee, it would fly backward,” and her comment on a famous radio host has me sputtering laughter as I write: “I have been attacked  by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt.  It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff all over your ankle.”

These quotes are not from Margaret and Alison Engel’s play, and I congratulate them for resisting scads more zingers (I wouldn’t have had the restraint).  Not that there isn’t plenty of funny stuff, but the play is structured as the story of a feisty woman’s life, not as stand-up, so the twin-sister writers give us biography, too, as well reminders of recent American history.

Enhanced by big projections by Maya Ciarrocchi of photographs of significant people and places, like a newsroom where Ivins battled sexism with wit, we hear about her childhood and about her struggles as a fledgling journalist (she was both demoted and fired for frankness).  We hear especially about her relationship with her right-wing father, who seemed never to have approved of her.  With their easy pop psychology (Dad was my Rosebud…), the father/daughter moments are the weakest of the venture, but the show has the pizzazz to recover from them, and Kathleen Turner is an irresistible performer, brash and bigger than life.  Sporting red hair like Ivins, and moving with a restless gait–she’s all over the stage–Turner draws you in, and she finesses the blatantly heart-tugging finale of the play with the skill of a trouper.

Tightly directed by David Esbjornson on a spacious understated set by John Arnone, and featuring lighting by Daniel Ionazzi, sound and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, Red Hot Patriot plays until January 4th, followed by KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein’s X’s and O’s, a Football Love Story in the new year.  For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit