As Gov. Ann Richards, Martha Harmon Pardee fully inhabits an American legend

Once upon a time in Texas, there was this Democratic governor named …

(Sound of record needle screeching, car brakes, spit takes)

Oh yes, it may be hard to imagine, but Texas hasn’t always been ruled by Republican governors trying to turn back the hands of time. Back in the 1990s, a woman named Ann Richards worked her way up to the governor’s mansion and ended up doing more for progressive politics in her one term than pretty much any Texas Democrat since.

Richards was, as they might say down yonder, a pistol who didn’t pull any punches and gave as good as she got in a tumultuous four years that ended in 1995 when she lost to, sigh, George W. Bush. Known as much for her fiery rhetoric as her plume of silver hair, Richards catapulted to fame when she was picked to deliver the keynote at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

A pretty detailed portrait of her life is compiled in the 2010 one-woman show Ann by Holland Taylor — a Cherry Creek Theatre production of which is now playing at Denver’s Mizel Center with Martha Harmon Pardee in the lead role. If anyone may have forgotten about Richards since her death from cancer in 2006, this play revives her legacy and serves as a vivid reminder that if you can see yourself as something, you can be that something.

This is a tidy, poignant bit of theatre documentary, and director Susie Snodgrass found the ideal Ann in Pardee. Taylor’s script relies on three main pillars, the first being an address Richards gives at a college graduation. This allows her to document her early years in rural Texas with a hardworking and kindly dad and a tough-as-nails mom who didn’t give an inch to her only child.

The second section finds Ann behind the desk as governor, jumping between phone calls with Bill Clinton, her PR guy, her kids and a host of others while yelling commands to her secretary and trying to solve a hundred problems at once. The end of the show is something of a dream sequence, where Ann is talking about her later years and the events leading to her death.

Through it all, Pardee is fantastic as Richards, twanging her way through life with a folksy but sharp approach that also allows her to own up to her shortcomings — not least of which was her alcoholism. It all comes across as strongly authentic, due in large part to what was apparently an exhaustive research project by Taylor to talk to as many people as possible who knew Richards. A lot of this comes out in the one day of action in the governor’s office, where we get a wide sampling of everything Richards was — and how much she relished the role.

The simple set by Tina Anderson is well suited to the smaller space at the Mizel (which, BTW, has fancy new chairs)! While she’s largely chained to the phone, Pardee also has occasion to wander across the set in her heels and business suit, a fabulous wig imbuing her with all the Ann Richards cred one could ask for.

Watching Ann is to be reminded that there was a time when at least some politicians got in the game for reasons more attuned to helping their constituents than padding their Twitter followers or prepping for a cable news slot. It’s also interesting to watch someone manage a high-profile political job without the nonstop hits from a smartphone. Even as recently as 1995, we weren’t bound by that information stream, and it’s easy to see how someone like Richards could operate more effectively by being just a little bit behind in the news.

As one-actor shows go, Ann is a standout since it has so many characters floating through the scenes via phone, letters and intercom. The character herself is magnetic and interesting enough to keep it lively, and Pardee inhabits Richards so fully as to create very little space between actor and role. It’s a superb performance, and Snodgrass’s direction is full of light but well-chosen moments that really make Ann shine.