Strong as Mustard Gas

Yankee Holland Taylor on playing the incomparable Ann Richards

Yankee Holland Taylor on playing the incomparable Ann Richards

Holland Taylor as former governor Ann Richards in the Broadway play Ann.
Holland Taylor is nominated for a Tony for her role in Ann. Photo by Ave Bonar

It’s just 48 hours, give or take, until the Tony Awards Sunday night, and Holland Taylor sounds a bit like a hurricane over the water — gaining speed, storing up energy. On her Thursday night sign-in board at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, there’s only one signature: hers.

Below her name, she’s jotted a note, as if the call board was asking for proof that she really IS Holland Taylor: “YES, I AM,” she writes in all caps. “I AM AS STRONG AS MUSTARD GAS.”

It’s a line she’s used to described Gov. Ann Richards in the one-woman play, Ann, which she conceived, researched, wrote and stars in, and which opened here in New York last winter. 

 “To be part of the Tonys is great,” Taylor says. “But believe me — playing this role is its own reward.”

Now the self-described “Yankee” actress, who slips into Texas drawl at the drop of a hat — at times, it seems, without quite realizing it — is up for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

She shrugs.

“I don’t like the competition,” she says. “Honoring people is wonderful. But setting up a horse race ... I don’t think actors can be compared, really. To be part of the Tonys is great. But believe me — playing this role is its own reward.”

And one she never expected.

She felt compelled to write the play — for reasons she still can’t quite explain — after Richards’ death in 2006, after only having met the fabled gov’ once, at a lunch with mutual friend Liz Smith. 

Over the years she’s performed it in Galveston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and now on Broadway through September 1.

Taylor’s eyes sparkle when she says the date. That would have been Richards’ 80th birthday.

Wild, no?

Not political
Taylor, 70, the smart, sexy Emmy winner best known as the acerbic matriarch on CBS’ Two and a Half Men, has given a lot, besides time, to get this show up and steam-rolling along. There’s the guest room in her Los Angeles home, consumed by boxes of Richards research, including countless interviews with friends and colleagues, letters, speeches and photos.

And the Twitter feed. Taylor’s no tweet fanatic by any stretch, but she’s toned down any snarky comments on politics she might’ve made prior to playing Richards, because she’s adamant about letting people know this show is not a political tale.

 Even when she takes off the wig — carefully, because it cost $6,500 — the Annitude is still there. Which Taylor likes.

Case in point: Two words you’ll never hear come out of Taylor’s mouth on stage during the show: “George Bush.”

It would’ve been easy — and was certainly expected — to mention the name of the fellow who beat Richards in her bid for reelection in 1994. But no.

“The play is not political,” Taylor emphasizes. “It’s about her life. About a life well-lived. If you write a play about Amelia Earhart, is it going to be about aviation? Or about a hero?”

The play opens with Taylor onstage delivering a fictitious commencement speech and slowly morphs its way into friendly chit-chat with the audience. And laughs. Lots of laughs. (Taylor knows a thing or two from sitcoms, after all.) 

Eventually the play offers a glimpse into the governor’s office in Austin, when an elaborate set-piece emerges. The audience gets to be a fly on the wall for a typical day as gov, which involves handling a hot-potato stay-of-execution case, mediating disputes between her kids over the phone, writing a personal check to cover business expenses, and chewing out certain underlings.

“She could be very, very, very, very hard on people, to the point of being mean,” Taylor admits. “I think she got that from her mother, who was TRULY mean. She loved her mother. Had a sunny father. But her mother just wanted her to be married, a socialite.

“I have a picture of her inauguration. On the grandstand, there’s only one person not standing — Ann’s mother. You really gotta laugh.”

Richards’ children have seen the play multiple times, which Taylor finds gratifying. Though she did once ask Richards’ daughter Cecile why she kept coming back.

“And this floored me. She said ‘It’s like spending another two hours with my mother.’ What can you SAY to something like that?”

 Richards’ children have seen the play multiple times. Richards’ daughter Cecile has said, it’s like spending another two hours with her mother.

The actress feels somehow “Ann-adjacent.” She didn’t know Richards. She learned about her through others. “But Cecile says I’m getting more like her.”

Amazing transition
Physically, making that happen each night is no easy matter. To turn that Yankee actress (Taylor was raised outside Philadelphia) to funny — make that VERY funny — Lone Star firebrand (with Q-Tip bouffant and matching white suit) takes two-and-a-half hours and includes re-creating her eyebrows, lips, energy. (Taylor walks up and down 20 flights to get revved.)

And even when she takes off the wig — carefully, because it cost $6,500 — the Annitude is still there. Which Taylor likes.

“Her vigor, taking delight in things, has increased in me — by tenfold,” says Taylor.  “And my seizing and enjoying the moment. I’ve never been good at that. But she was. Now I’m getting better.”

Of course, part of the reason Taylor has been so successful at “becoming” Richards is because the two women were similar from the get-go — both hardworking, determined straight shooters.

Ask Taylor about her former Two and a Half Men co-star (and tabloid bad boy) Charlie Sheen and she jumps right in. “I’m happy to tell you Charlie Sheen is a friend.”

Yes, his departure from the series was rather bumpy, she admits, but in the years prior to that on set he was “the most well-behaved person,” respectful to the staff, never pulling attitude.

“I care for the man. He has the human touch with people in a way I admire.  But he’s had ...” — she pauses— “a life that has … predetermined certain things that will be quite hard for him to avoid.” She shrugs again. “I want him to do well, be well.”

As for “Ann,” well, there’s Tony night to get through. And several months more in the Big Apple. Then, perhaps, touring with the show. Taylor is vague on the details.

“I can’t even see tomorrow,” she says.

But she can see Richards — staying with her, being a part of her life from now on, whether she’s putting on that poofy white wig or not.

“Oh, she’ll always be with me. I’m not a particularly woo-woo person. I’m a journeyman actress. I’m playing a role. I’m playing a role that requires absolutely all my heart.  It’s acting. Still, I know she’ll always be with me.”

--

Watch the 67th annual Tony Awards at 7 pm on CBS.