Among the many photos of Ann Richards on the wall of Holland Taylor’s dressing room was one in which the former Texas governor’s dark wardrobe blended into the photo’s dark backdrop, leaving the focus solely on Ms. Richards’s face and her chalk-white swirl of hair.
It was perhaps a frame of reference for the wig an assistant was positioning on Ms. Taylor’s head last weekend at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre in San Antonio. Ms. Taylor, 67, had just finished penciling on eyebrows for the second night of a 10-show run of the witty and inspirational one-woman play she wrote and performs, “Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards.”
“It’s a pain,” Ms. Taylor, the Emmy Award-winning co-star of television’s “Two and a Half Men,” as well as a veteran of stage and screen, said of the wig.
Ms. Taylor’s play is one of three interpretations of Ms. Richards’s life that are cropping up 20 years after the progressive, feminist Democrat whupped the good ol’ boys of both parties and became the second female, after Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in 1925, to seize the state’s highest office.
These projects — a biography and movie are the others — aren’t so much a reaction to the George W. Bush and Rick Perry years of Republicanism that followed, their creators said, as an attempt to articulate the legacy of Ms. Richards, a complex public figure who died of esophageal cancer in 2006 at the age of 73.
“She was an imperfect human being,” Cecile Richards said. “She was an alcoholic, she was divorced — and yet she just kept going. She would never want to be portrayed as some Joan of Arc.”
Ms. Richards was also an underdog who championed fellow underdogs in her opposition to the death penalty, advocacy of the arts, and promotion of women, minorities and gay people. A successful four-year-old public, all-girls college preparatory school is named for the governor, a teacher by training: the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, which serves a largely at-risk student population. And she was a real pistol who drawled truth to power, stripping politics of pretense.
Expounding on this is an as-yet-untitled biography by Jan Reid, whose remembrance of Ms. Richards in the November 2006 issue of Texas Monthly was a springboard for the book, to be published next year by the University of Texas Press.
Given Mr. Reid’s long history with Ms. Richards — he met her at a “gonzo bridge party” in 1980, and Dorothy Browne, Mr. Reid’s wife, worked for Ms. Richards — he was surprised to discover something new about her: correspondence between Ms. Richards and Edwin “Bud” Shrake — a writer and close friend — on “Far Side” cartoons and facsimiles. They started in 1988, four years after Ms. Richards and David Richards divorced, around the time of her speech at the Democratic National Convention, where she famously cracked that George H.W. Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth.
“It was really fascinating to see this really intimate set of letters — just taking a ride,” Mr. Reid said.
“Backwards and in High Heels,” meanwhile, is a forthcoming documentary that will emphasize the role humor played in Ms. Richards’s career.
“Ann’s amazing charisma and character are great mechanisms for a filmmaker to examine some of the more abstract themes about women in political life,” said Adam J. Fowler, the film’s director.
So why all the interest in a governor who did not even win a second term?
“I can’t tell you the number of women I run into who met Mom in an airport, or saw her shopping for pantyhose, and feel like they had some deep connection with her,” Cecile Richards said.
Ms. Taylor’s lone interaction with Ms. Richards — over lunch with their mutual friend, Liz Smith, the gossip columnist — was one such chance encounter. Four years later, the result is Ms. Taylor’s play, which was workshopped in Galveston this summer and will head to Austin and Dallas next year.
“I think that people are finally able to say, ‘Well, we had Ann and she was great, and we learned a lot from her, and we can still continue to learn from her,’ ” Ms. Taylor said.
Ms. Taylor throws herself on the skillet introducing her play in Ms. Richards’s backyard. And she sizzles — not only because her script is full of zingers that pander to Texans’ egos, but also because Ms. Taylor’s homage is critical, as shown through her depiction of Ms. Richards’s tough treatment of her staff.
“I have to be smarter than I am for two hours,” Ms. Taylor said.
And powering her through the bravura performance is that wig — that hair with its own legacy, that hair that is represented in the headstone in the Texas State Cemetery, in an East Austin neighborhood as eclectic as the marginalized beneficiaries of Ms. Richards’s governance.
“The stone that’s there, it’s either her hair or the top of a Dairy Queen dipped cone,” Cecile Richards said. “I don’t know exactly what she was thinking.”