Jayne Atkinson: Many Political Women, One Singular ‘Ann’

A Texas-sized challenge for any actress, even one at the peak of her performative powers.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in Holland Taylor's "Ann" at the Dorset Theatre Festival. Photo: Ryan Koss.

For the last two days, actress Jayne Atkinson has been lost in the middle of Dorset, VT. Not wandering around aimlessly, exactly, but lost within the towering and indelible life-force of a woman affectionately known as Ann.

That Ann is Ann Richards, the indomitable Texas governor who died in 2006 at age 73 — and who was superbly memorialized as the sole character of Holland Taylor’s play Ann, which ran on Broadway in 2013. Atkinson, whose extensive stage credits includes over a half-dozen roles on Broadway (and two Tony nominations), is giving three performances of Ann as part of the Dorset Theatre Festival, the annual must-see summer rite for native New Englanders and visitors alike.

Atkinson, too, is familiar from TV. She has played no fewer than four powerful, distinctive women in recurring roles, including Karen Hayes on 24, Erin Strauss on Criminal Minds, Secretary of State Catherine Durant on House of Cards, and Vice President Teresa Hurst on Madam Secretary. (This Ann revival is directed by Kristen van Ginhoven and co-produced by the Berkshires-based WAM Theatre.)

Atkinson’s TV resume is especially noteworthy in the sense that each of the four recurring characters are political in ways both obvious and subtle, and the fact that Atkinson herself maintains an activists’ persona, both promoting women’s causes (WAM creates “Theatre for Everyone That Benefits Women and Girls”) and lending time and resources to fundraisers for causes that she believes in.

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Still, Ann Richards (and Ann) has to represent a Texas-sized challenge even for someone at the peak of her performative powers. As shown in Taylor’s play, she’s formidable, complex, disarming and gleefully blunt; the woman who declared at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, accurately, that George H.W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” is drawn directly from the double-height headlines of late-20th-century American politics.

While we will not see Richards’ like again, one great question thus remains: Will we see Atkinson reprise this role elsewhere, and perhaps for a longer run? I’m reluctant to be a lone star monger of any rumors, so I’ll only say this: “Stay tuned!”

And now, 5 questions that Jayne Atkinson has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

I’m not sure if there is just one question. I do find that there is a pervading desire to ask women about things that aren’t necessarily about their work; a desire to ask about our children, or our clothing, or our husbands, and while my husband, son and clothing are all wonderful, I do appreciate being asked about the gravitas of the work and the importance of the women I play.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked about your work?

This is probably in the same vein as the first question. Nothing sticks out to me as particularly idiotic, just perhaps lacking in perspective or depth.

What is the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

Can I say Question 5 on here? Truly I’ve never thought about getting to live as one of my characters for 24 hours but more on that in Question 5.

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As you well know, Ann Richards had tremendous life-force, integrity and sass. Which two elements of her personality feel nearest to your own, and which two feel most different? Of any of these four, which is most pleasurable for you, as an actor, to access?

I relate to a lot of Ann. She was a real powerhouse and fought for what she believed in. I hope I do the same. She has a fundamental compassion for what is right, which I feel very strongly in my own life. As for differences, I think she’s a bit more brash than I am. I tend to approach things with a gentleness that didn’t seem to be Ann’s default. I can certainly light that fire if I need to, but as a general rule, my way of moving about the world is a bit softer around the edges than hers seemed to be. The most pleasurable thing to play? She’s deeply witty and has an amazing sense of humor. I love doing comedy so it’s a treat to get to dip a toe into it with her.

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You’ve played several major political characters over many TV episodes. If you could live for 24 hours as Teresa Hurst, Catherine Durant or Ann Richards — or, alternatively, remain fully Jayne Atkinson-which would you pick and why?

I’m pretty content with Jayne. One of the biggest blessings of being an actress is that I get to meet all these different female characters and spend some time with them and then walk away to my own life. I think I get to spend enough time with each of these ladies that I wouldn’t want a full 24 hours with anyone but me.

Bonus question:

Are you aware of the secret arrangement? That any actor playing Ann Richards can, through a medium, contact Ann Richards herself to ask three questions — as long as one of them is over-the-top hilarious. Which questions would you ask her?

I was not actually made aware of this arrangement. It would have saved Kristen and I some research! We were lucky enough to speak with some people who knew her and they made us feel as though we knew her too. Three questions, though: I suppose I’d love to know her ideas about a way forward for women in this political climate and with the #MeToo Movement. She was such a champion for women that hearing her perspective would be fascinating. Number two: I’d want to know her message for America in a time where we seem so divided. And number three, the funny one — I’d want to know her most absurd experience in politics. Shows like Veep have shone a light on how strange the world of politics can be, and truth is often stranger than fiction — so I’d welcome any stories from her.