Peggy and Allison Engel, both 58, have always had identical-twins ESP, so even though they were living 3,000 miles apart when nationally-syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, 62, died in 2007 from breast cancer, they immediately had the same thought:
"We were both so distraught that Molly's extraordinary voice had been stilled much too soon," Peggy said. "We immediately knew she had to become a play so her voice could live on."
Even though neither sister had ever written a play, the two lifelong journalists - Allison on the West Coast and Peggy on the East Coast - spent two years writing "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins," which will make its world premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company this month, starring screen/stage actress Kathleen Turner.
Their identical-twins ESP, documented since they were kids growing up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, came in handy as they wrote the play together while living on opposite coasts.
"When we were little, Case Western Reserve did a study on identical twins and ESP," Peggy said. "We tested very high for it."
"On Mother's Day, our mother will get identical cards from us," Allison said. "We do not plan it that way."
"When we went to college," Peggy said, "we bought identical coats."
"It's not like a parlor game," Allison said. "It's real. Our parents weren't into dressing us as twins. But we turned out very much alike."
Although their one-woman play is making its world premiere here due to the happy coincidence of an available theater that fits into Turner's jam-packed schedule, the Engel twins have a deep and abiding affection for Philadelphia based on, of all things, The Three Stooges.
"Philadelphia is a real hotbed of Stooge culture," Allison said seriously.
"I once spent four hours in the Stoogeum," Peggy said, referring to the repository of nearly 100,000 pieces of Stooge memorabilia in Ambler, Montgomery County.
"The Stooges saved my life," she said. "When I was 5 years old, I got my first asthma attack while laughing at them and that was the first time my parents realized I had asthma."
"It wasn't so much the physical humor," Allison said without a trace of irony. "We didn't like the triple smack. We liked the Stooges' cerebral side."
Decades later, their love of Ivins' finely-honed triple smacks to politicians' fat heads inspired a play that, Peggy said, is much more than a collection of the quick-witted columnist's greatest lines, such as:
"I am not anti-gun. I'm pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We'd turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don't ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives."
Although the sisters interviewed Ivins' closest friends and colleagues, Peggy said, "Our play is much more than a string of wonderful Molly anecdotes. Her death felt very deep and personal to me. As women journalists, we looked up to Molly as a woman who blazed the paths that we followed, very far behind her."
Allison said, "She resonated so strongly with us because she was a true regional writer who had a national base."
Peggy, who spent years as a Washington Post reporter, said, "We admired that because we know how hard it is to get heard outside the corridors of power."
"Early on," Allison said, "Molly did not want to be stuck in what was known at that time as the 'women's pages.' So she wrote about politics. She became a national figure without becoming a part of the power corridor in Washington. There aren't too many people who can plunk themselves down in Austin, Texas, and operate on the national stage, but she did."
Peggy said, "Molly felt most comfortable in Austin. She felt that her voice could be heard in a more authentic way. It wouldn't have to be journalism by committee. It would be journalism by Molly."
Allison said, "She had a front-row seat in Austin, watching both Bushes, and the savings and loan crisis."
Ivins did not live to see the Sarah Palin phenomenon - a political satirist's dream. Were the sisters tempted to imagine what Molly would have made of it?
"It was a great temptation," Allison said.
"But," Peggy said, "we felt that since Molly was a journalist who wrote so much about truth, it would be dishonest and disingenuous of us to put words in her mouth about something she had never seen."
As it was, there was so much great material in Ivins' surgical skewering of the things she had seen, Peggy said, that the sisters' only regret is "we couldn't write a five-hour play."
And Turner, fresh from a hilariously foulmouthed, tour de force, guest role on Showtime's "Californication" that makes her iconic movie "Body Heat" seem innocent by comparison, brings Ivins to life in extraordinary ways, the sisters said.
"Kathleen can get laughs where you didn't think there was a light moment," Allison said.
"And," Peggy said, "Kathleen can suddenly create a poignant moment with a look or a gesture that is not necessarily written on the page. She is thrilling to watch."
The progress of "Red Hot Patriot" from page to stage in only two years is fast for a new play by new playwrights, the sisters said.
Their only previous playwriting experience was the comedy sketches they did together at Chagrin Falls High School.
Feigning temporary amnesia, Allison only vaguely remembered them as parodies of "those highly irritating yet memorable local auto dealer commercials."
"It was not high drama," Peggy said.
"Thank goodness, it was before YouTube," Allison said.