The Engel twins knew exactly the actress they wanted for their play, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” after the nationally syndicated political columnist died in 2007.
It was Kathleen Turner.
“She was our No. 1 first choice,” says Bethesda resident and former Washington Post reporter Margaret Engel about the award-winning film and stage actress.
Identical twin sister Allison Engel, also a former reporter who lives in Los Angeles, says Turner is “earthy; she tells it like it is,” just like Ivins did.
The Engels launched “Red Hot Patriot” with Turner at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2010 to accommodate the actress’ work schedule at the time.
Other productions have been done since, including one starring Turner at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
This week, the play will premier with her at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., with a nine-week run beginning Thursday and continuing to Oct. 28.
And it’s happening just as the Republicans and Democrats gear up for conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, respectively, as the battle between President Obama and presumed challenger Mitt Romney heats up.
“She was fascinated about how politics worked,” says Margaret about Ivins’ long track record as a political observer, particularly during the administration of fellow Texan, George W. Bush.
During a time when citizens continue to debate what it means to be a patriot, the Engels see ways, in addition to serving in the military, that Americans can serve their country.
Ivins took on the perpetrators and regulators during the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s, and also championed fair treatment of children and poor and disabled people.
“She had strong opinions, and she was a very good reporter, doing original research and digging,” Allison says. “She really was a patriot in every sense of the word.”
“Molly absolutely believed that criticizing and dissenting from things was a definition of patriotism,” Allison says. “She believed in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment and fighting for those principles.”
Although the cast of political characters has changed in the five years since her death from breast cancer at age 62, what comes through in the play about her opinions and ideas still is relevant.
“She’s talking about politics what she says is as fresh as if she wrote it yesterday,” says Margaret, who along with Allison has not changed the play’s mix of their wording and Ivins’ in anticipation of the presidential election in November.
Reminiscent of actor Hal Holbrook’s show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” the play presents Turner working in a newsroom, joined from time to time by an assistant who does things like bring her coffee.
“[Ivins] has been compared to Mark Twain, who was side-splittingly funny, but it was always to make a point,” Allison says. “The jokes are in service to something.”
Daughter of an oil and gas executive, Ivins grew up in 1950s Houston in the same conservative social circles as the Bush family.
But after graduating from Smith College in 1967 and earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York, she briefly worked for a Minneapolis paper before landing at the Texas Observer, a liberal news magazine based in Austin.
“It opened her eyes to social issues,” says Margaret about the beginning of Ivins’ journey down a different road.
As a columnist, Ivins served as an inspiration for the Engel sisters, who grew up near Cleveland and started their careers as reporters with papers in Des Moines, Iowa, in the late 1970s.
“I knew who she was and read her constantly,” says Margaret. “She was a real hero in the business. ... She told the truth ... and she was fearless.”
Margaret currently heads the District-based Alicia Patterson Foundation, named for the journalist who built Newsday into a large and well-respected newspaper.
Allison, who also has a masters degree in screenwriting, is associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California.
Both are working on future plays about two more writers, columnist and humorist Irma Bombeck and New York writer Damon Runyon, but the work still is in progress.
When Ivins died, the first thing Margaret says she did was call Allison and say they had to write a play about her.
“I was so distraught that her voice would be missing,” Margaret says.
They immediately thought of Turner, who shares some of Ivins’ humor and political philosophy and also got to know her personally when Ivins came to New York to visit her friend, former Texas governor Ann Richards, who lost to George W. Bush in 1994.
Turner happened to live in the same building as Richards, and the three of them occasionally would get together, Allison says.
Turner admired Ivins, and when the actress learned that the Engels were writing a play about her, Turner immediately said, “I want that script!”
The feeling was mutual.
“Kathleen is perfection in the role,” says Margaret. “She’s so good, so smart, so hardworking. She uses her all every minute.”