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WASHINGTON — “Yikes,” says Kathleen Turner, flashing a wicked grin reminiscent of her days as an Eighties screen sensation in “Body Heat,” “Romancing the Stone” and “The War of the Roses.”
She’s reminded of her comment, coming off her critically acclaimed run in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 2005, that she had spent her life fixing Elizabeth Taylor’s roles. “That was very cocky of me, wasn’t it?” she says. “I was thinking of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ you know, and ‘Virginia Woolf.’ I think she butchered those roles.”
Turner, 58, is midway through a two-month D.C. run starring in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,’’ a one-woman show at Arena Stage about the liberal Texas reporter who famously dubbed President George W. Bush “shrub.” Turner keeps her audience laughing in her portrayal of the firebrand humorist who battled alcohol, fought with her father, died of breast cancer and, for many of her peers, came to represent print journalism at its grassroots finest. Eight shows a week, her fans celebrate each performance on their feet, laughing, clapping and saluting the days when politicians really cared what syndicated columnists wrote.
Halfway through September, the show broke $1 million, during a month when Arena is usually empty. Now it is virtually sold out through Oct. 28, when Turner moves on to work on a new project directing and starring in a revival of “The Killing of Sister George,” scheduled to open Nov. 28 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
“Everyone at Arena is extremely happy,” says Turner, blonde hair flowing as she strides across the living room of her trendy, temporary, D.C. digs, chatting breezily on the telephone with her best friend and ex-husband, Jay Weiss. “They gave me dozens of red roses to celebrate,” she exclaims.
Starkly decorated, the house’s combined dining-living room could use some color. Apart from the gray, dome-covered kitty litter and a few scattered cat toys, the main feature is a string that dangles from a black stick tucked under a cushion of a gray couch, all for the benefit of a gray tabby rescue cat named Tigerlily, who likes visitors. So where are the flowers? “They’re in my dressing room,” says Turner, who is dressed in gray sweatpants in preparation for a standing date at Pure Joe Pilates Studios on Massachusetts Avenue near the Brookings Institution. “I spend more time there than here.”
Turner’s main gripe with Taylor, she says, is the voice. Whereas Turner packs a huge, lusty one for the ages, Taylor’s was a high-pitched, little girlish affair. “Now that may not be her fault. But, yeah, I have a real problem with her voice,” she says. “I always thought her voice was lousy, and it was. I just found her very shallow.”
Born 20 years apart, the two actresses share a lot in common. Turner and Taylor both converted to Judaism — Turner at age 30, when she married Weiss, and Taylor to marry Eddie Fisher, her fourth of seven husbands. Both actresses also suffered from debilitating diseases — Turner from rheumatoid arthritis, and Taylor from scoliosis — and both abused alcohol.