April 12, 2023–Texas has a knack for producing more than its share of memorable public figures.
There is no denying one of those was Ann Richards, regardless of your political bent. The former governor’s aura was larger than the Lone Star State itself, and by the end of her life her legacy had assumed legendary status.
In 2010, Holland Taylor, an Emmy Award-winning actor you might recognize from her role as the “eager” mother on Two and A Half Men, wrote her one-woman show Ann-An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards and took it to a successful run on Broadway. That show will appear at the Rockbox Theater in Fredericksburg on April 22, with actress Libby Villari in the lead role.
Taylor remembers that when she got the idea for the one-woman show, she “burst into flames with inspiration.” What attracted Taylor, a Pennsylvania product, to the very Texas-tinged Ann Richards?
“Her extraordinary spirit,” Taylor said during a phone interview while she was flying from New York to Los Angeles. “I think she’s one of the greatest American heroic characters we have. She was also complex and could be very difficult and could be incredibly funny and generous. All these combinations of great attributes made her a fantastic personality.”
Taylor had met Richards once, but it was only after her death that she crystallized the idea to do a show around the former Texas governor.
“When she died, she was just 73,” Taylor said. “It seemed like a very sudden and quite early death for such a lively person. It really broke my heart. I kept wondering why. Then I realized that she was much bigger, not only in my mind, but in the country’s mind. And I thought, you know, I’m a creative person, I want to do something creative about her.”
Taylor never looked back, and became immersed in the task of researching Richards’ personal and political life. Most impressive is how someone so lauded for her film, stage, and TV work could also turn out a Broadway-worthy script.
“Writing a play is no mean feat,” Taylor admitted, “and this is not a conventional play.”
After endless polishing and cutting to get it under two hours–the original version ran two hours and 45 minutes–she felt she had “lightning in a bottle.”
The accomplished actor took on the role herself initially, admitting she had “a lot to learn” as someone who had spent a total of four days in Texas in her life. But it was a tour de force. After a successful Broadway run where it earned a Tony Award nomination, Taylor began letting other actresses perform the piece around the country. That’s when she “discovered” Libby Villari.
“A couple of people have played the part well, but I think Libby is the one who really has the spirit right,” Taylor said. “She’s a Texas actress, she’s been in a couple of movies, she was on Friday Night Lights, and she has that nice shock of white hair!”
Villari’s breakout performance came after the Zach Theater in Austin asked Taylor to reprise her show there after its first sellout run. Taylor instead recommended Libby, and let her use the original Broadway sets and her Broadway director.
“They were knocked out by her, and she did the second big run in Austin that was a real hit.”
The role is open to different interpretation by each actor, and that is fine with Taylor.
“We all do it very differently. Except that it’s the same persona. Libby does it for all the right reasons, and she’s made it her own.”
Libby Villari has been taking the show across the country ever since. Although the play was written 13 years ago, Villari sees it is still fresh for audiences.
“It’s not a political play; it’s a story about a fascinating woman,” Villari said. “Politics are in it, because she was a politician. But the play is about a lot more than politics.”
Doing a one-woman show is taxing for an actor. Villari’s secret is to “become Ann.”
“My process is to try to find all the similarities between me and the character,” Villari said “With Ann, even though she was my hero before I got to play her, I didn’t know we had so many similarities.”
They both grew up in the rural south, both moved to California at a young age, never dreamed people would see them on TV, and were both passionate about the same things–children, women’s rights, and sobriety.
To close the loop, one of the reasons Villari is able to bring this show to Texas audiences is Ann Richards herself.
“She brought the TV and film industry to Texas–she is the reason that I and hundreds of other actors, crew, filmmakers are able to exist in this state. Hollywood loved her sass and humor.”
Texans–of all political stripes–still do.
Ann-Portrait of Ann Richards will be performed at the Rockbox Theater in Fredericksburg, on Saturday, April 22, 2023, at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM.