The Lady With All the Answers tackles a subject with little conflict, and no tension. If you feel like sitting back and watching an admirable performance and listening to some 1970s humor served a little wry, but mostly familiar, this is a nice respite from holiday shopping or from worrying about how to afford to do your holiday shopping.
For over 40 years, Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer wrote a very popular syndicated newspaper advice column under the pen name of Ann Landers. She was hugely popular for her no-nonsense, practical advice on numerous subjects worrying her readers. Some of the subjects were quite weighty, others lighthearted, yet others were off the wallbut Ann Landers always treated her readers with respect, even when she was telling them what didn't want to hear. Her appeal was that, in addition to that respect, she showed both concern and a sense of humor.
This 80-minute play (plus intermission) is set in Eppie's Chicago apartment in 1975, on the night she must write the most difficult column of her careerone in which she informs her readers that, after years of telling them all that divorce is not an option, her own marriage of over 36 years is ending. As she works up the courage to put her thoughts into words, Eppie tells the audience about her life. She discusses her twin sister Pauline "Popo," who also wrote an advice column (called Dear Abby), with whom she is close but has the typical sisterly conflicts. She describes her early life, her parents, her husband Julius and her daughter Margo, and how she came to write the column. Those familiar with the Ann Landers columns will recognize the quips and one-liners she was known for ("He's two pickles shy of a turkey sandwich."). In a nicely wigged (thank you, Sherry Deberson) rendition of the familiar very dark, lacquered hairdo, Ruoti is solid in the role; she plays the part, a charming homage, but doesn't go for mimicry (Lederer had a pronounced Midwestern accent). Her connection with the audience is immediate and she holds them for the entire show. The fourth wall-breaking "show of hands" questions and comments aren't necessary, but they do seem to make the audience feel like they are guests in this woman's living room.
Unfortunately, though Lederer was an admirable person, and well known, this dramatization of her life story gets more of a "that was nice" reaction than anything else. Those with even a passing familiarity with the Ann Landers columns will have already heard some of the funniest segments of the showthe reading of the interesting and odd (real) letters from her readers. The dueling advice column conflicts with her sister and the divorce aren't a surprise, either. And it seems it could have been presented more concisely in a one act format. While most shows end act one with a cliffhanger, or break for emotional relief, The Lady With All the Answers's first act ends with Lederer heading offstage for a bath. Fortunately, Ruoti's performance on James Noone's perfectly livable and well appointed set is reason enough to see this show. This is a pleasant, smile-inducing bon bon of a play, and an always welcome opportunity to see why Helen Ruoti has won accolades for her work in the Pittsburgh area.
Director Ted Pappas does double duty here with a notable contribution as costume designer, including the first act wool crepe suit is perfectly period and perfectly Ann Landers.
The Lady With All the Answers at the O'REilly Theatre for Pittsburgh Public Theater. By David Rambo; Directed by Ted Pappas; Starring Helen Ruoti. Through December 14. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org or the box office.