One of the beauties of newspapers — as the nation that has allowed too many of them to die may one day realize — is that they provide a home and a pulpit for every manner of quirky truth-teller.
Molly Ivins was one. The pugnacious Texas columnist specialized in a kind of dead-serious humor designed to afflict the comfortable within an inch of their lives.
Ivins was one of journalism’s happy warriors, a quality adeptly captured by Karen MacDonald, who delivers a winningly assured performance in Lyric Stage Company’s generally satisfying production of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,’’ directed by Courtney O’Connor.
Ivins’s populism-infused political commentary sought to illuminate social injustice while having some caustic fun with those whom she saw as standing in the way of progress, whether through malevolence or general obtuseness. It was Ivins who gave the nickname “Shrub’’ to George W. Bush, and it was she who bitingly observed that Pat Buchanan’s cultural call to arms at the 1992 Republican National Convention “probably sounded better in the original German.’’
Ivins is the kind of outsize character who amounts to a pitch in MacDonald’s wheelhouse, and the actress hits it pretty far, even though she battled hoarseness at the reviewed performance and took frequent swigs from a bottle of water. In a reddish wig, cowboy boots, jeans, and a blue denim shirt over a red jersey (costumes are by Sarie Gessner), MacDonald looks the part. She sounds the part, too, nailing Ivins’s Southern drawl without overdoing it and conveying a clear sense of Molly’s gift for storytelling.
Crucially, MacDonald’s Ivins possesses that paradoxical journalistic combination of cynicism and idealism. The one-act “Red Hot Patriot’’ was written by twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, both of whom have worked as reporters. With an AP teletype machine upstage, a typewriter on Ivins’s desk, and stacks of newspapers on the floor behind that desk, Katharine Burkhart’s set functions as both a faded newsroom and as a memory of such newsrooms. Like some of the best reporters I’ve known, MacDonald’s Ivins is an old-school, one-finger typist, jabbing away at the keyboard as if each word was a punch to the jaw.
“Red Hot Patriot’’ trains much of its focus on Ivins’s adventures while working at the Texas Observer (which Molly beautifully describes as a period of “sweat and scramble’’), The New York Times (“where I was miserable at five times my previous salary’’ and “my copy got declawed and neutered’’) and the Dallas Times Herald (where she infuriated many readers by writing of a Republican congressman that “If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.’’). Ivins also wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and her column was eventually syndicated nationally. Shaped by the Vietnam War, she was a fierce opponent of the war in Iraq.
Even on dry topics like campaign finance, her writing often had the unignorable force of a trumpet blast. An inveterate hellraiser, Ivins savored the gaudy carnival of American life, including the rogues’ gallery in the Texas Legislature who inspired her — as a young reporter who’d been educated at Smith College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — to begin using “words with a little salt and chili on ’em.’’
Though “Red Hot Patriot’’ gives us a full sense of its protagonist’s voice, the portrait of her life outside the newsroom feels incomplete. There are fleeting references to a pair of lovers, both of whom died young. Her struggles with drinking and with breast cancer (of which she died in 2007 at age 62) are memorably but briefly described. However, the figure of her authoritarian father — who was her opposite in almost every way imaginable, including politically — is a looming presence. The rebellious spirit that drove Ivins her entire life, it is implied, developed in response to her father.
Yet Molly the character is both vivid and a bit elusive in “Red Hot Patriot.’’ Perhaps it’s inevitable, given that she admits at one point: “I’m one of those people out of touch with my emotions. I treat my emotions like unpleasant relatives — a long-distance call once or twice a year is more than enough. If I got in touch with them, they might come to stay.’’
Ultimately, the level at which “Red Hot Patriot’’ reverberates most deeply is as a celebration of the endlessly varied life that newspapering grants to those lucky enough to practice it.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.