Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Patriot act

Photo: Mark S. Howard

Karen MacDonald's evocation of celebrated Texas columnist Molly Ivins (in Red Hot Patriot, at the Lyric Stage through January 31) is so luminous and thoughtfully crafted that it almost disguises the fact that the theatrical setting of her star turn isn't quite as "kick-ass" as it would like to be. And the problem isn't just that the script (by former journalists Margaret and Allison Engel) occasionally plays as a patchwork of punchy quotes (although sometimes it does). No, the deeper, more poignant issue with Patriot is that the play feels far more like a requiem than a celebration; for the woes of the millennium have kicked the whole foundation out from under this late columnist's calculatedly charming act.

Which isn't to say that her sane, salty wit has gone missing from the piece. Quite the contrary - it's there in abundance; and MacDonald knows just how every line should land. What's more, with her newly auburn locks and spanking-fresh cowboy boots, MacDonald, if not quite a dead ringer for Ivins, still seems to be packing just about everything you'd want in a good-old-girl liberal firecracker.  (She even nails an upper-crust East Texas accent.)  But an autumnal tone still suffuses the piece; if Ivins first comes off as raising hell at a defiantly jubilant wake for Southern liberalism, by the end she seems to be lighting a candle for herself.

I admit I partly identified with Ivins' plight because I recognized in her the remnants of the lost liberal tradition of what I think of as my hometown - Houston, Texas (although I was born in New York City, I was raised on the Gulf coast). Of course I didn't move in the Ivins' social circle - Molly grew up in the ultra-moneyed River Oaks district (in fact her father was president of the company that employed my father), where she mixed with the Bushes and their ilk. And while this gave her nascent liberal leanings a definite focus and edge, it also bestowed on her a certain sense of decorum.  I know this sounds funny given that she named her dog "Sh*t," and was famous for her colorful invective; but beneath her exasperated barbs there was a generous poise to Ivins - a kind of faith in there being some civic and social space in which liberals and conservatives could come to terms, laugh at the failings of both parties, and maybe even work things out.

But I hardly need to tell you that all that is gone. Indeed, Ivins' political children - cable stars like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - all operate on the unstated principle that our current situation is hopeless, that the benighted right can never see the light, and cannot be persuaded of anything. Melting glaciers cannot convince them of climate change; and gay marriage to them still looms like a threat. Thus satire has gone meta - perhaps even double meta, as its reformist raison d'être no longer has any culture purchase.

Although that doesn't mean it's no longer fun. Certainly Ivins was a hoot throughout her career, and most of her best bon mots are assembled here. She was, after all, the one who dubbed Dubya "Dubya" - and then nicknamed him "Shrub" to boot (having known him as far back as high school, she had an unshakable faith in his imbecility).  But probably her most pungent writing was devoted to the politics of her home state - as she once put it, when the legislature convenes in Texas, "every village loses its idiot." And it's not hard to understand why she got such a kick out of all those good old boys gone bad - there's something innocent about the cupidity of Texas politicians, something nearly exuberant about their stupidity.

This was the fuel that kept her Mark-Twain-like mojo going - until, of course, breast cancer took her from us all too soon. But perhaps Ivins understood herself that her time was passing. There's a touching moment toward the close of Red Hot when Ms. MacDonald ruefully acknowledges what anyone of a certain age knows to be true of American politics: that hate has taken over. And once that has happened, satire in effect becomes a mode of nostalgia. Which was what filled my heart as the curtain fell on Karen MacDonald's beguiling performance.

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