Book Review

Gone But Not Forgotten

Lawrence Wright loves the Texas House of Representatives. His affection can be seen in practically every scene of his new play, Sonny’s Last Shot. He loves the ideal of a citizen legislature, populated by “decent folks elected by their neighbors.†He revels even more in the reality of the Capitol as a nexus for freewheeling corruption, where temptation lurks behind every corner, and whose political inhabitants seem to exhibit a greater share of human foibles than the general population. Wright loves the drunken camaraderie; the give-and-take that produces great legislation; the leveling effect of an adroit manipulation of the rules; and even the good-time lobbyists with their slick situational ethics. Above all, Wright loves the Lege as a dramatist: a place that produces stories so fantastic they need to be toned down to be made into believable fiction. (Not even Hollywood would buy the true story of Rep. Mike Martin, who shot himself to try to win voter sympathy in the 1980s.)

Wright tried to describe the quality of his ardor recently in an editorial column for The New York Times: “Anybody who writes about Texas politics … faces the problem known to religious ecstatics of trying to explain an experience in terms that don’t sound delusional.â€

Sonny’s Last Shot, which Wright adapted from a screenplay he wrote in 2000, demonstrates conclusively that there is enough material in the Texas Lege for a whole raft of plays and probably a few musicals. The play is chock full of real-life episodes from past sessions including a quorum break and cheerleaders brought to the House floor to support pending legislation. Many of the characters are based on real legislators.

At its best, Sonny’s Last Shot is laugh-out-loud funny and even touching. But it is a bittersweet and nostalgic experience for anyone who follows the Lege closely today. For Wright portrays an institution that is largely gone. It crumbled beneath the might of the 2002 radical right take-over that installed House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland).

The play held its premier last month at Austin’s Arts on Real Theater. Ably directed by Austin luminary Marco Perella, the month-long production benefited the Sunshine Kids, a charitable foundation that helps children with cancer. Sunshine’s executive director is Port Arthur native G.W. Bailey. Audiences worldwide know Bailey as Sgt. Rizzo in the television show M*A*S*H and Capt. Harris in the Police Academy film series. In Sonny’s Last Shot, the actor portrays lobbyist L.D. Sparks, the play’s narrator.

Bailey performs Sparks with a silky steel demeanor under a veneer of vintage good old boy, as if Mephistopheles had been raised in a double wide. He addresses his asides to the audience like a con artist initiating co-conspirators into a well-crafted scam. The play truly comes alive whenever the veteran actor is on the stage. Sparks is clearly Wright’s favorite character and gets many of the best lines.

Sparks serves as an object lesson for the protagonist, Sonny, an idealistic young representative from Marfa played by Will Wallace. It appears Sparks started out as a reform-minded legislator himself before leaving office for the dark side, when he “learned how the world works.â€

The play begins with Sonny leading a quixotic effort to pass a campaign finance reform bill. Before the play ends, more than two hours later, he has failed to conceive with his cowgirl wife, had a one-night stand with a female colleague, engaged in an excessively silly masturbation fantasy, thwarted a bill to funnel money to a corrupt Rep.’s contractor son, broken quorum, and ascended to the leadership. The play rushes through all this and more with a scene-changing frenzy that must come from its previous incarnation as a screenplay. Despite the abundant physical movement, Wright never moves Sonny emotionally much beyond Sparks’ assessment of him as “self-righteous and pig headed.†And it doesn’t help that many of his relationship scenes play like a bad soap opera.

Sonny’s Last Shot perks up for the character of Angela Jackson (D-Houston), portrayed convincingly by Angela Rawna. Jackson is an ambitious and intelligent freshman legislator bent on improving the lot of her constituents. In other words, an easy mark for lobbyist Sparks. He confides to her that most people are motivated by either “money, power, or pussy.†Of course, that changed when women came in, he says to her with a smile.

Jackson is mostly a composite of Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) and Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). During the third special redistricting session, Dukes had the House pass a unanimous resolution playfully honoring Sonny’s Last Shot and the Texas Lege. She also made it clear that the actions of the character based on her were fictional. The proclamation read in part: “The skills honed in this formidable laboratory of freedom have propelled Texans to the highest levels of leadership of this civilized universe, much to the admiration and joy of citizens contained therein, excepting the French ones…â€

Angela Jackson is not the only composite character. The fictional Speaker of the House is Big Bob Bigbee, a tart-tongued but kindly patriarch equal parts Bob Bullock and Pete Laney. The scene in which both Big Bob (acted wonderfully by Dennis Letts) and Sparks play a round of “existential golf†naked in a lightning storm is a funny and poignant highlight. Then there is Rep. Lurleen Klump (R-Plano) played by Janelle Buchanan. This character seems clearly to be drawn with Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R-Burleson) in mind.

Unfortunately, Buchanan and Wright are too busy mocking Lurleen to humanize her. She is unlike the Wohlgemuth of today, who takes clear pleasure in being a coldly efficient legislative predator. It’s the same mistake Democrat legislative leaders made in underestimating their Republican opponents. At the end of the play, Lurleen acts against her own ideology in the interest of fairness, something that would never happen in the Craddick House of today.

It’s a sad reminder of what has changed. In the 2003 Legislature, there was no give and take. Rules were not respected. Ideological extremism ruled the day. The idea, as in the play, that there could be an openly gay Republican representative is beyond fanciful. Today such a person would have been crushed to dust in a Republican primary. Speaker Craddick, far from wise and kindly, is a mostly cross teetotaler who abused his power.

At the end of the play, the lobbyist L.D. Sparks proves he’s really got a heart of gold, by acting against his own self-interest to help Sonny win the House speakership. He tells him: “You honestly don’t think I care about this place? Jesus Christ Sonny, it’s the only thing in this world I really do care about.†This session, the Republicans shredded bipartisanship in the interests of congressional redistricting. By doing so, they made it abundantly clear that the present leadership is willing to sacrifice the institution to achieve its revolutionary aims. In this Texas Lege, Sonny wouldn’t have much of a shot at all.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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