MacDonald brings Lone Star legend to life at Lyric

Karen MacDonald as Molly Ivins points to a projection former President George W. Bush in "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins." Photo: Mark S. Howard.

Karen MacDonald as Molly Ivins points to a projection of former President George W. Bush in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.

BOSTON — The American Repertory Theatre used to hog the talents of actress Karen MacDonald, but when the ART took a new direction under Diane Paulus, the actors in the resident troupe went their separate ways and MacDonald became a gun for hire by any Boston-area theater company.
She has since performed on most if not all of the professional stages in and around the city, and it has given her access to a variety of roles she probably never would have had at the ART.
For instance, it’s hard to imagine her former artistic home doing a show such as “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” now being presented by the Lyric Stage Company on its Clarendon Street stage.
The one-act, 90-minute solo performance chronicles the life and times of Molly Ivins, a legendary columnist who was both a Texan and a committed liberal to her core.
It’s written by two former reporters — twin sisters Margaret Engel and Allison Engel — giving it some “street cred” when it comes to life in a newsroom.
MacDonald as Ivins serves as our narrator and guide to her own life and she invites “we readers” in to hear a collection of good stories, anecdotes and observations, interspersed with notes from her personal life, often pointing to newspaper clippings and projections by Johnathan Carr that adorned a back wall of the stage.
As we begin, Ivins is sitting down to write a column about her authoritarian father, with whom she has had a problematic relationship and who has shot himself just hours before. He is as different from her as can be imagined, and she struggles to describe that relationship in print.
Ivins had a 40-year career. She was happy at a liberal refuge such as the weekly Texas Observer, which allowed her to connect with like-minded folks across the state, and where she could present her unfettered views.
She chafed as her columns were “neutered” and “declawed” at the New York Times, where she once described a chicken-killing festival as a “gang pluck,” earning her the enmity of legendary Times editor Abe Rosenthal and eventually a rather abrupt departure from the “Gray Lady.”
Set designer Katharine Burkhart’s newsroom has a lot of interesting artifacts, including what appears to be an authentic AP teletype machine.
MacDonald as Ivins hunts and pecks on an actual typewriter. At one point, I was the MVP of the Lynn Item newsroom because I knew how to quickly and efficiently change the ribbon in the electric typewriters we used to produce scanned copy, the first step in newspapers’ digital revolution.
One thing that would have made it more authentic was an overflowing ashtray or two. There were times in the old newsroom when you couldn’t see the person across the room.
A photo she showed of an old newsroom at the Houston Chronicle rang true: all white men. She was the only woman in the room, and I can vouch there was a time when women weren’t taken seriously as reporters,
But Ivins admits to quickly becoming “one of the boys,” which she said she used to her advantage in the male-dominated world of journalism. Ultimately, there would be no hiding her light under a bushel basket.
She is passionate in her opposition to the Vietnam War and later excursions. She points to a projection of former President Goerge W. Bush (“Shrub” in her parlance) and scolds voters for not listening to her when they elected him not once but twice.
And yes, drinking was not exactly discouraged at newspapers for many years. It usually started at the top with the publisher’s three-martini lunch –and MacDonald as Ivins is not shy about talking about her problems in that regard, and describes an “intervention.”
On the personal side she treasured her friendships with legendary Texas figures such as Governor Ann Richards and the mentors in her career, and describes suffering through two lost loves and possible regrets at two roads not taken: becoming a wife and/or mother.
With Sarie Gessner’s costume design, MacDonald looks the part with a red wig, jeans and boots, and a denim shirt. MacDonald handles the Texan twang quite well — no surprise there — and although physically she isn’t quite as imposing as Ivins, who was six feet tall and red-headed to boot, that difference fades into the background as she inhabits the part.
Director Courtney O’Connor’s main job here is too make sure MacDonald doesn’t take the twang too far, ensure proper pacing and the right amount and kind and movement to prevent the piece from getting static, and she succeeds on all counts.
Ivins died in 2007 from breast cancer, but in MacDonald’s reincarnation, a picture evolves of a woman — regardless of your particular political persuasion — who would be a joy to sit, argue, laugh and enjoy a beer with. And who left a lasting mark on the Lone Star State.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” Written by Margaret and Allison Engel. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. At The Lyric Stage Company, Clarendon Street, through Jan. 31.