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Chicago by John Olson

The Lady with All the Answers
Northlight Theatre

Also see John's review of Jekyll and Hyde

The Lady With All the Answers
Judity Ivey
Occupying center stage, on a coffee table in the living room of a traditional and fashionable Lake Shore Drive apartment, sits a Banker's Box of Chicago-based columnist Ann Landers' letters from readers. "This one's going into the book," she tells her audience as she reads us some of the choicer missives. For many of the letters, she maintains a certain detached sense of amusement—what else could possibly be an appropriate reaction to a writer who asks Ann what to do about a husband who greets guests swinging from a tree and dressed as a chimpanzee? Others are more mundane—discussing the proper way to mount a roll of toilet paper, for example. The letters are funny enough, but Miss Landers' acid-tongued and straight-to-the point commentary, as delivered by two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey, keeps the audience smiling pretty much throughout the piece.

David Rambo's one-woman play places the audience as invited guests of sorts in the home of Esther Pauline "Eppie" Friedman Lederer, who wrote an advice column under the name Ann Landers from 1955 until her death in 2002. On this particular 1975 evening, Eppie is facing a bit of writer's block as she struggles to find the words to tell her readers that she and her husband Julius have agreed to divorce following his affair with a much younger woman. She's happy to procrastinate while reading to us some of her readers' more colorful letters as well as proudly recounting her drive to urge readers to write President Nixon and urge funding for cancer research. Between her asides to the audience are phone calls from daughter Margo and sister "Popo" (Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, who wrote the competing column "Dear Abby" until 1995). The laughs are broken up with comments from some of the touching and desperate-sounding letters from readers in need, like the gay teenager who claims to be considering suicide or stories of her trips to Vietnam during the war and her follow-up phone calls to the families of soldiers she met over there.

The corollary to being the "lady with all the answers" is that she's also the lady who has to take all the questions. In an era before widespread acceptance of support groups or public declarations of personal problems on TV talk shows, we see how the job of confidant to millions is a burden, indeed. When Eppie finally finishes and reads to us the column she's had difficulty finishing, we hear her admission that "the lady with all the answers doesn't have the answer to this one"—the question of why, after advising thousands of readers on their marriages, she was unable to save her own. At the end of the day, the lady who seemed somehow above her needy readers is clearly as human as the rest of them and even more bound to them as their confessor.

Rambo's view of Eppie Lederer is probably an idealized one. There's little about her feud with her sister or her published views of homosexuality as a mental disorder, for example. But if not a full-fledged biography of its subject, as complete as say Golda's Balcony, for example, it captures the spirit and wit of Ann Landers in addition to suggesting a bit of symbolic importance to her life and work.

As directed by B.J. Jones, Miss Ivey captures both dimensions of the character perfectly. Ivey's voice—even without working to imitate Lederer's—is a close-enough match, and she communicates a friendly but no-nonsense and tough-as-nails tone when recounting some of the more amusing letters. In the quieter moments, a more sensitive and vulnerable side comes through. She's held back by Rambo's decision to give more weight to the lighter moments, and struggles to find a way to mix things up until the heavier moments near the end of the two-act, 90-minute play. Still, she keeps us amused through the lighter moments and touches us with the heavier ones. This is an entertaining and moving play, if a slight one, but one that is well worthwhile, thanks to the performance of Judith Ivey.

The Lady with All the Answers will be performed Tuesdays through Sundays through June 29, 2008 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL. Tickets are available by phone at 847-673-6300, online at www.northlight.org or at the box office.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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