Actress channels late Texas governor Richards in ART Station’s ‘Ann’

“Ann,” a one-woman show (by Holland Taylor) featuring Clarinda Ross as former Texas governor Ann Richards, continues through July 3 at ART Station in Stone Mountain.
Courtesy of Michael Hidalgo

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“Ann,” a one-woman show (by Holland Taylor) featuring Clarinda Ross as former Texas governor Ann Richards, continues through July 3 at ART Station in Stone Mountain. Courtesy of Michael Hidalgo

A majority of actors likely would say there’s more to playing well-known, real-life personalities than simply being made up to resemble them or merely mimicking their most recognizable traits. In the case of portraying Ann Richards, though, the flamboyant and wisecracking former Texas governor (from 1991 to 1995), how could any performer conceivably avoid her famously coiffed gray hair, the obvious twang of her regional accent, or her characteristically sassy, shoot-from-the-hip attitude?

Popular actress Holland Taylor originally penned the one-woman show “Ann” as a flashy vehicle for herself, and the role earned her a 2013 Tony nomination on Broadway. In artistic director David Thomas’ economical ART Station rendition, the juicy part is assigned to his longtime collaborator Clarinda Ross, a founding member of the Stone Mountain company and a former fixture on the Atlanta theater scene back in the 1990s, before she relocated to Los Angeles.

“Ann” opens with a film clip of the actual Richards giving the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, an event the character later admits was “life-changing” in terms of putting her on the political map. During the play’s first 30 or so minutes, Ross holds court delivering a commencement speech to a graduating college class. Even when she awkwardly leaves the podium on occasion to cross the stage and take a seat on a bar stool — as if Richards were campaigning at some down-home town-hall meeting instead — Ross maintains her steady grip on a captive audience.

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Clarinda Ross appears in ART Station’s one-woman show “Ann,” about former Texas governor Ann Richards. Courtesy of Michael Hidalgo

Credit: Handout

Clarinda Ross appears in ART Station’s one-woman show “Ann,” about former Texas governor Ann Richards.
Courtesy of Michael Hidalgo

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
Clarinda Ross appears in ART Station’s one-woman show “Ann,” about former Texas governor Ann Richards. Courtesy of Michael Hidalgo

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

It’s in this segment that playwright Taylor covers all the requisite biographical details about Richards and her back story. She grew up amid the Depression in rural Lakeview, Texas, “where there was no lake to view,” she quips. Her parents were poor, although she prefers to describe them as “hard-working,” and moved the family to San Diego when Ann was 11. Leaving the prejudice and segregation of Texas for the ethnic diversity of California “was a moment to make you blink,” she recalls. She discovered a “sense of belonging in the world” and realized “life was never going to be the same.”

Indeed, it wasn’t. In the script’s quick order, Richards ended up back in Texas by the 1950s: She attended Baylor University; taught school for a while; raised four children with her husband (and high-school sweetheart), David, a prominent Austin civil rights attorney; and she was “content to worship at his shrine” — at least until friends encouraged her to run for office as a county commissioner.

She won that race, and over the course of 15 subsequent years “on the political fast track,” she also got divorced, and she battled and conquered a drinking problem, to boot. She served eight years as Texas state treasurer before being elected governor. Needless to say, the campaign was “stressful.” After all, as she puts it, “I was a divorced, alcoholic woman Democrat in Texas.”

At this point in Thomas’ production, the curtain behind Ross parts to reveal the governor’s office (scenography by Michael Hidalgo). She takes her place behind the desk, and as the show proceeds for another hour or more, we gradually lose the sense of rapport or direct connection with the character that we felt during the graduation speech. Suddenly, and literally, the play starts phoning everything in, as she’s “riding herd” over sundry family members and staff members in an endless series of calls.

There’s also an ongoing running gag of sorts between Richards and her unseen administrative assistant/secretary, Nancy, that seems interminable. It might have been funny to introduce this second character, frantically running in and out of the office to satisfy her boss’ every need or whim. As it is, I couldn’t tell on opening night if there was someone reading Nancy’s lines from offstage, or whether her dialogue had been prerecorded. In any event, the exchanges were very poorly timed and executed, with a lot of halting, Pinter-worthy pauses in the conversation that were deadly.

It isn’t the best sign in a one-woman show about the garrulous Ann Richards to even temporarily catch her at an apparent loss for words.


THEATER REVIEW

“Ann”

Through July 3. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; 10:30 a.m. Wednesday (June 29). $15-$34. ART Station, 5384 Manor Drive, Stone Mountain. 770-469-1105, www.artstation.org.

Bottom line: Sporadically sluggish and stilted, but otherwise well-acted by Clarinda Ross.