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Sonoma Arts Live stages ‘Ann’ at Community Center

'Ann' at SCC

“Ann” runs at the Sonoma Community Center from May 17 to 21; performance times are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Sonomaartslive.org.


Pink cat hats notwithstanding, it’s been a hard year for women. Heads of governments and captains of industry have placed feminism in the crosshairs, and the ensuing culture wars have made headlines: Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump. In handy juxtaposition, Sonoma Arts Live has dedicated its current season to “Women Who Dare,” and will stage the Broadway hit, “Ann,” in solidarity.

A one-woman show following the rise of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, “Ann” is a testament to the seductive power of authenticity: Richards was a woman who said what she meant and meant what she said, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.

A wife and mother who forged political connections, she was a little-known Texas state treasurer coiffed in a helmet of “Republican hair” when she made her national debut at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

Salty and irreverent and unapologetically bold, Richards made an indelible impression. She eviscerated the Reagan administration’s talking points and zinged Republican nominee (and eventual President) George H.W. Bush, teasing him about everything from his “phony” Texas accent to his aristocratic lineage. The crowd ate it up and her trajectory shifted; she was elected governor of Texas in 1990.

“Ann,” written by Emmy-winning playwright Holland Taylor and staged by Sonoma Arts Live, stars Libby Villari in the titular role, a reprisal of her performance at the River City Repertory Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana, earlier this year. Perhaps best known for her TV role as Mayor Lucy Rodell in “Friday Night Lights,” Villari has appeared in more than 35 films: “The Blind Side,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and the Oscar-nominated “Boyhood,” to name a few.

Reached by telephone in Texas, where she has lived many years, Villari was effervescent, quick to laugh, and eminently likeable. “I AM Ann!” she said. “Ann lives inside me. I’m scrappy. I won’t shut up if I have something to say.”

Villari further described herself as “earthy” and “inappropriate.”

“I’m really politically passionate about equal rights. This is who I am. I sort of act bad sometimes and I’m bossy,” says Villari. “I have so many ‘Ann traits’ that it’s unimaginable they made two people like this and put them on earth. Playing this character is beyond personal for me.”

Villari recounts moving to Texas from California as a young wife and mother, despairing initially for what she perceived as the backward ways of that place. She was a peace-and-love hippie who’d been priced out of California, and the zeitgeist in Texas gave her real pause. But then out of the shadows stepped Ann Richards herself, and Villari saw her own potential within. “Ann gave us hope,” Villari said simply.

“We had to say yes when Villari came to us with ‘Ann,’ and she fits perfectly in the ‘Women Who Dare’ season,” said Jaime Love, executive artistic director of Sonoma Arts Live about the theater company’s season focused on works about strong women. “What the real Ann Richards gave women was encouragement, with the accent on courage.”

Directed by Sharon Benge, of Texas, and co-produced by Rebecca Otto of Sonoma, the staging of “Ann” allows only one woman on the platform, but includes the disembodied voice of a second. Richard’s indispensable executive assistant, Nancy Kohler, is played from the wings by Libby Oberlin of the Theater School, affirming the old adage that no man — or woman — is an island.

'Ann' at SCC

“Ann” runs at the Sonoma Community Center from May 17 to 21; performance times are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Sonomaartslive.org.

It was the women around Richards, in fact, whom she credited with her rise. They mobilized and canvased and closed ranks on the patriarchy, which — run by the good-ole-boy network in Texas — played dirty pool. Richards was only the second woman elected Governor of that state, though the first, “Ma” Ferguson, was essentially a proxy for her impeached husband, “Pa,” who was convicted and sent to prison for selling pardons to inmates.

Richards battled character assassination and negative campaigning by her opponent Clayton Williams — like the black wreath reading “Death to the Family” his minions hung on the front door of her campaign headquarters — eventually winning the gubernatorial race in a squeaker.

She battled demons of her own making, too: alcoholism, a failed marriage, and a Texas-sized propensity to shoot from the lip. Perhaps her fearlessness was a bi-product of finding the limelight late. More probably though, her dazzle stemmed from a conscious decision, one that was unique to the era, back then: to live independently, unfettered and free, claiming permission to think, speak and do as she pleased.