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Stage Review

In bold strokes, the Molly Ivins we all knew

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 8, 2011

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LENOX - At first, the stage is dark, and the only sound we hear is a deep, knowing laugh - the laugh of someone who finds absurdities to savor pretty much everywhere she looks.

When the lights come up, Tina Packer is sitting with her red-booted feet up on a newsroom desk, the very picture of the iconoclastic Texas columnist she portrays in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.’’

Then Packer starts to speak . . . in a British accent.

Despite the English-born Packer’s intermittent attempts at a Texas drawl, the accent is jarring, given that Ivins was so strongly identified with the Lone Star State. (Imagine hearing an actor portray Ted Kennedy with a French accent.)

But such is the force of Packer’s charisma and the depth of her talent that bit by bit, over the course of “Red Hot Patriot,’’ she does summon the essential spirit of Molly Ivins. She manages to make us laugh, make us think, and make us mad at the people Ivins wanted us to be mad at.

(It should also be noted, in fairness to Packer, that there were times when the columnist and commentator spoke with a pronounced Texas accent and other times when Ivins, who attended Smith College, did not.)

Before she died in 2007 of breast cancer at 62, Ivins was the colorful, passionate, and eloquent embodiment of give-no-quarter liberalism. A fierce champion of civil rights, she also brought a trenchant wit to the political battles she was always eager to fight. To her, George W. Bush was, always and forever, “Shrub’’; of Pat Buchanan’s 1992 culture-war speech to the Republican National Convention, Ivins dryly opined that it “probably sounded better in the original German.’’

Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, the twin sisters and former newspaper reporters who wrote “Red Hot Patriot,’’ were right to sense that Ivins’s larger-than-life persona had the makings of a “Mark Twain Tonight!’’-style theater piece. But while “Red Hot Patriot’’ is enjoyable and thought-provoking, I wish it gave a fuller portrait of the woman behind all those incisive polemical zingers.

The notion that Molly’s lifelong rebellious streak stemmed from her contentious relationship with her authoritarian father is not fully developed. Considerable attention is focused on a politician named Bob Bullock, who served as lieutenant governor to two very different Texans, Ann Richards and Bush, but there are only a couple of glancing references to Ivins’s friendship with Richards, who was a fascinating figure in her own right. Nor is there quite as much about Bush in “Red Hot Patriot’’ as one would wish, given that Ivins was perhaps his most relentless (and prescient) antagonist, having known him since they were teenagers.

The Shakespeare & Company production, directed by Jenna Ware, is set in a drab-looking newsroom. Apart from Ivins, there is only one other character in “Red Hot Patriot’’: a copy clerk, played by assistant stage manager Harrison Wilken, who has no lines but who periodically races onstage, rips a sheet of copy from an Associated Press teletype machine, and hands it to Ivins.

The stories she is handed furnish a narrative framework, as Ivins journeys down memory lane. She reminisces about her career as a reporter (including a stint at The New York Times, where her irreverence often landed her in hot water, and at the Texas Observer), as a crusading syndicated columnist, and as a reliable thorn in the side of any public figure who favored the powerful over the powerless.

On opening night of “Red Hot Patriot,’’ Packer’s timing was off at certain points, and her voice sounded hoarse, but her Molly was every inch the happy warrior. Now 72, the founder and former artistic director of Shakespeare & Company has subjected herself to a grueling workload of late: She just wrapped up a marathon run of “Women of Will,’’ a five-part performance-cum-lecture cycle in which she examined the centrality of women in Shakespeare’s vision.

It is moving when Packer takes off her wig to reveal a cancer-stricken, seemingly broken Ivins. But, fittingly, before “Red Hot Patriot’’ reaches the end, Molly rallies and delivers one final call to battle.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

RED HOT PATRIOT: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins

Play by: Margaret Engel and Allison Engel Directed by: Jenna Ware. Sets, Patrick Brennan. Lights, Stephen Ball. Costumes, Govane Lohbauer. Sound, Michael Pfeiffer. Projections, Enrico Spada.

At: Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox. Through Sept. 4. Tickets $12-$49, 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org