The experience of seeing Red Hot Patriot is an odd one. Enjoyable, certainly – what else could it be, given the sharp-tongued wit of Molly Ivins? But it's also a play about a Texas that has in some ways already passed from us, along with the woman at the center of this show. Austinites have daily proof that Texas is becoming slicker, smoother, and more like other places. To see Red Hot Patriot is to pretend for an evening that we're all still hiding out in a sleepy hamlet that plays host to the biennial circus that is the Texas Lege, tossing around that rough-and-ready Texas attitude whenever we please because we're too far from the rest of the world for anyone to care.
To that end, Red Hot Patriot is a play like most others: a world of make-believe and imagination, created for an evening's entertainment. Much of the script is taken directly from Molly Ivins' writing, of course. Its playwrights are two sister journalists, Allison and Margaret Engel, who have combed Ivins' work for some of its brighter gems. They've also pieced together a story that tries to explain what made this woman tick. Their answer comes across as somewhat formulaic, in the way that a newspaper feature arranges the facts just so to tell one version of a story. In truth, life is never quite as simple as an angry father and a love lost to Vietnam. Still, it's a pleasure to hear Ivins' words once more and also to take a tour through a particular era of Texas history, when the only way of coping with the absurdities of Texas politics was to laugh – and the bigger and louder our laughter, like Ivins', the better.
For this revival of the Zach Theatre production staged earlier this year, Artistic Director Dave Steakley has taken over as director from David Esbjornson and moved the show to another of Zach's performance spaces. The production retains its lead actor, Barbara Chisholm, who more or less reaches into the grave and yanks Ivins back to spend a little time with us each performance. [Full disclosure: Chisholm is married to Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires.] Not having seen the first version, I can offer no perspective on what may have changed, but this new staging is fine on its own terms. Chisholm's charisma is a delight, and the pacing of the show is appropriately quick and tidy. A certain degree of spontaneity is missing; it's easy to see a punch line coming. It's like watching a star pitcher wind up for a fastball: The delivery is great, but it's no surprise that the guy threw the ball.
If Red Hot Patriot has a moral for us to take home, it's that the worst thing you can do is stop caring. As Ivins, Chisholm blasts her audience with her passion, demanding that we not sit back while greedy fools turn their backs on the poor, the suffering, the powerless. As easy as it is to go to sleep in a state where the electoral votes for 2012 may as well be decided already, seeing Red Hot Patriot can shake us from our stupor, reminding us to keep working for what's right. This was always Molly Ivins' battle cry, and it's a lovely message for a play about a woman who never met apathy.
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