Montgomery Theater opens its 30th anniversary season with the first regional production of “Ann,” about former Texas governor Ann Richards.
In the words of Philadelphia-born actress and playwright Holland Taylor, Ann Richards “was brave, strong, and funny – Bill Clinton has said the wittiest person he’d ever met! … She ran as a liberal in conservative Texas, so I had to write a play about her four incredible years in Austin. … She was ahead of Obama by about 10 years as an ‘inclusive’ leader.”
She is none other than Ann Richards, the impassioned, iconic governor of Texas from 1991 to 1995. She was a political and cultural firebrand who ignited major progressive changes in the Lone Star State. She has inspired the women and minorities whose causes she championed, as well as future Democratic leaders like Beto O’Rourke, and, closer to home, Philadelphia’s own Holland Taylor.
Not only did Taylor research, write, produce, and star in her one-woman play about Ann Richards in 2009, but she also was nominated for a 2013 Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Play for her performance as Ann on Broadway.
And, on Feb. 2, Montgomery Theater will open its 30th anniversary season with the first regional production of “Ann.” The one-woman play stars multi-talented singer and actress April Woodall, a longtime resident of Jenkintown who, like Richards, was born in Texas.
Tom Quinn, the artistic director of Souderton’s professional theater since its founding, has been in the theater business for decades, both here and in Los Angeles, where he befriended legendary author/playwright Ray Bradbury. Last year, Quinn happened to see a production of the play on PBS and knew he had to produce it, but only under one condition: “no April, no ‘Ann,’” he said. He had approached Woodall 10 months ago to gauge her interest, so once the script and actress became available, it was destined to see the lights.
Woodall, who has also won or been nominated for several acting awards in New York, Florida, and Philadelphia, told the Local that it’s been one of the most challenging roles she’s ever had.
“It’s a 90-minute play with one intermission, so I’m onstage the entire time,” the actress said. “But what a great honor it is to play her. Holland [Taylor] did a great job capturing Ann’s vivacious nature, putting it all into words for someone else to play. No one could tell the governor what to do,” she continued. “And she did some extraordinary things, so the play is packed with incidents that show the prism of her personality. It is challenging. But it’s fun and energetic, for both me and the audience.”
Woodall says that people outside the Lone Star State may not realize Texans’ deep sense of pride. “Everything is bigger in Texas. The flag is everywhere. And they’re fiercely independent. I’m trying to capture a bit of that for local audiences,” she said. Richards could be as fiery as the Texas GOP, but on the liberal, progressive side. And when she supported women and minorities, she was totally sincere.
The actress said that even Republicans liked Richards, who appointed members of the party to her cabinet and positions of authority because they were highly qualified. “It’s such a timely play,” Woodall said, “because so many of us are not talking to each other these days, and we really need to. The play will get people to think.”
And will Woodall sound like Richards? You bet. Although she was living in Philadelphia during Richards’ heyday, Woodall frequently returns to Texas. Having recently visited relatives there, including her beloved 95-year-old aunt, she finds her old accent “drifting back.” In fact, when she began her theater work here, Philadelphia directors told her, “Okay, now, but lose the accent.”
When we spoke, the actress was about to do her first rehearsal on the set. Director Quinn said, “Today’s the designer run. So April will rehearse from a lighting standpoint. It’s a pretty static set, so lights help create the magic. And we’re fortunate to have lighting designer Jim Leitner at the helm.”
But Woodall will not be alone onstage. At least, not exactly. “I’m not by myself. I’ll have stage manager Brian Goldblatt in the box to give me cues,” she said. “I’ll have my director close by. And I’ll have Ann’s voice in my head.” Here, she quotes one of her favorite lines from the play: “Look, kids, the here and now is all you have. If you play it right, it’s all you need.”
Quinn said that Goldblatt is integral to the rehearsals.
“There’s some voice-over interaction that April responds to,” he said. “Brian is our safety net, the crutch April needs to lean on. Brian also did the research for the blurbs you’ll find in our program. It’s a kind of glossary of the people Ann talks to and about in the play that audiences might not know, to help give them context.”
Quinn said that Holland Taylor reached out to him when she learned that his theater was doing her play and, unsolicited, sent him her original script, which has 20 or so “tweaks” that improve the clarity of the play.
“Ann” fits perfectly into what Quinn calls “our female-centric season. Our second play, ‘Camelot,’ obviously centers on Guinevere. A female character is the focal point of our summer play, ‘Bakersfield Mist.’ Our next play, ‘Morning After Grace,’ was written by a woman. And we’ll have a non-subscription ‘drop-in’ play this summer, called ‘Together Off-Broadway: [Ethel] Merman and [Mary] Martin.’”
Montgomery Theater is a professional theater that stages five productions on its Main Stage every year. On its lower-level Project Stage, the company presents two children’s productions, educational programs for adults and children, and experimental theater, as well as occasional limited-run, special productions.
Asked if he’s surprised that, three decades later, he and his theater are still standing tall, Quinn laughed. “I have no crystal ball. I’m more about the now. If you’re not having fun doing this, you shouldn’t be doing it. You get to work with great people like April, who’s a giver as well as a talented actress.”
He also quotes his friend, actor Marc Weil, who said, “If I don’t do this, I don’t know who I am,” and his mentor, actor-writer Jonathan Daly, who quipped, “You know how to stay in this business? Don’t leave it.”
Holland Taylor’s “Ann'' is running through Feb. 26 at Montgomery Theater, 124 N. Main St., Souderton. Tickets: 215-723-9984, ext. 10. Info: montgomerytheater.org.