Actress Holland Taylor will perform a one-woman as Ann Richards in a show… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — Holland Taylor has something in her closet she never dreamed she'd own: four pairs of expensive fine-grain cowboy boots.
"You feel tall, you feel strong, you feel like you could get a snakebite on the ankle and live," she says. "I'm now an old lady wearing cowboy boots!"
Even at 70, the Philadelphia Main Line native doesn't come off like one during a lunch just before a rehearsal of the play that has taken her deep into mesquite country: "Ann," the one-person show about Ann Richards, the ebullient liberal Texas governor, that Taylor has also written.
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The play, which opens Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, brings Taylor back to Broadway after an absence of 30 years, decades she spent working mostly in television, playing the bossy executive in the series that launched Tom Hanks, "Bosom Buddies," winning an Emmy for the David E. Kelley legal drama "The Practice" and for the last decade portraying the snobby and shallow mother in the CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men."
Dressed in a modest black suit and sans makeup, Taylor displays some of the sexy playfulness and arch humor of those characters, but she also breaks into the folksy demeanor and Texas twang of the woman she's been obsessed with for the last six years.
The actress says she felt bereft when in 2006 she heard that Richards had died at age 73 of cancer. She was not alone. Richards had captivated millions since she first blazed onto the national scene as the witty, down-home keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 1988. Her feisty profile grew during her gubernatorial term before she was defeated by George W. Bush in 1994.
"When she died, I mourned for the country as much as for myself," says Taylor, who had met Richards only once, at a lunch arranged by columnist Liz Smith. "It was the loss of a voice, a voice that we needed to hear."
The actress launched what she called "a quest" to capture Richards for the stage, a process that included hundreds of interviews with family, friends and associates and detailed research, including some 150 hours of video.
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"'Ann' clearly is a labor of love, and this is a bravura solo performance … wrapped up in an innate sense of the woman's indomitable spirit," critic Chris Jones wrote in the Chicago Tribune when it played there in November 2011, three years after Taylor first began writing the play and the year after it debuted in Texas. Development continued during an engagement in Washington, D.C.
"I knew I had to get the persona, what made everybody so nuts for her, rather than the policy or the politics," says Taylor. "I'm not writing history. I'm spotty on actual information. But I knew if I got her essence, then I'd get what she stood for, because that's what drove her, what made the connections through the heart."
What emerges in the course of the two-act play is an emotionally complicated, deeply compassionate woman whom Taylor takes from her Depression-era Texas youth to her years as a "bomb-throwing" housewife immersed in local politics, to her term as a tough and pragmatic governor and finally as a theater-loving, lecture-giving New Yorker.
It's a colorful portrait. After all, this is a woman who once went to a party dressed as a tampon, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in prisons when she was governor, vetoed a concealed weapons bill (which doomed her reelection) and had a profane sense of humor that she often practiced on her pal Bill Clinton.
"You really got her relationship with Bill," Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, told Taylor after seeing the production in Washington. Taylor says, "I cried as she approached the green room with about a dozen of her aides, this great cloud of powerful women."
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But it is in the re-creation of a hectic day in the governor's office — snapping at beleaguered aides (offstage), soothing her children's ruffled feelings on the phone, sewing the fringe on a flag while fielding calls from the president — that Taylor boils down the essence of the flinty Richards.
In an unsentimental aside, the governor asks an aide to track down a 9-year-old Mexican American boy she had met with his mother in Brownsville, Texas. She insists that the boy, who lived in a shack with no electricity or running water, be invited to the mansion for a party "with all those other fat capital brats."
"That boy is going to be something," says Richards — and she is determined to help him get there.
"She was a defender of the insulted and the ignored," says Taylor. "She had a sharp eye for anybody who was left out and gravitated toward them. That's Ann to the ground."
Taylor to the ground is more elusive, as she herself admits. The daughter of an attorney and a painter born to privilege, the actress says she "just stumbled through life."