The Austin Chronicle

Zach Theatre's Ann

This revival of Holland Taylor's play replaces Ann Richards the Lone Star icon with the everyday Texan who faced challenges head-on

Reviewed by Trey Gutierrez, August 23, 2019, Arts

While I was not of a politically aware age during Ann Richards' term as governor of Texas, her legacy is not lost on me. Growing up in a liberal Austin family meant revering Richards as a grand symbol of sanity in a deeply red state – a sort of mythologized Texas folk hero à la Davy Crockett. As expected, seeing Richards brought to life on Zach's Topfer Theatre stage was a complex experience, one that left me with a new understanding of the legendary politician. On the stage wasn't Ann Richards the Lone Star icon, but rather Ann Richards the individual – headstrong, occasionally flawed, and never compromising.

Returning to Zach for the first time since 2016, Ann chronicles the politician's rise to prominence as well as her time as governor, balancing a respect for the outsized political trailblazer Richards would become with the human she really was. While deeply rooted in recent history, under Ben Endsley's direction Ann's story feels intimate and timeless. Ushering audiences through Richards' pensive mind, Endsley's staging moves fluidly between memories. Seamless scene transitions, like the move from Richards' opening college commencement speech to her gubernatorial term (marked by the reveal of scenic designer Michael Fagin's intricately detailed executive office set), feel less like meticulous tech cues and more like the natural spontaneity of our protagonist's memory.

Taking over the role of Richards from Ann playwright and pioneering star Holland Taylor, Libby Villari plays the governor with a lay-it-all-out excitement. Vallari's comfort as the character forms the show's backbone, inspiring enough laughs, cheers, and applause to shame even the most popular up-and-coming politician.

The actor's energy level remains at 11 throughout the performance, reaching its boiling point during the show's midsection, where we join Richards for a hectic evening at the office. As she loses herself in this approximately 40-minute segment of nonstop deskwork, audiences feel the stress that Gov. Richards certainly faced on a daily basis – perhaps too vividly. Phone call after phone call, memo after memo, all weighs on the show's otherwise purposeful pace.

As this unglamorous office scene evinces, Ann is not a polished, revisionist portrait. Holland's script captures two sides of the Richards coin. On one side, there's a cool professionalism; on the other, an unapologetic personality as big as Texas. The balance that Villari strikes between the two is endlessly entertaining; in the same breath that her Richards delivers a rousing commencement speech, she tells a vulgar joke involving a Great Dane in heat – leaving her audience laughing uncomfortably and Villari cackling with genuine delight.

Ann's charm comes from its believability. Holland's intensively researched script combined with Villari's nuanced portrayal shattered my image of Richards as some larger-than-life martyr but replaced it with a more mature understanding of Texas' 45th governor. By portraying Richards as she really was, an everyday take-no-shit Texan who faced challenges head-on, Zach's revival feels especially relevant in our current climate of political uneasiness.

As a large portrait of Richards descended from the rafters at the show's end, I was reassured that long overdue societal change won't necessarily come from folk heroes, but rather everyday citizens who will similarly rise to the occasions that life presents them – perhaps it'll be the group of school-aged students seated to my left, whom I noticed hanging on Villari's every word and applauding for a bit longer than the rest of us at the show's end.


Zach Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through Sept. 7
Running time: 2 hr., 5 min.

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