The Lady with All the Answers has it all together at the History Theatre
Ann Landers is struggling to write her famous column. It's July 1, 1975. Her first few words state that this is the most difficult column she's ever had to write. But she can get no further. She's up and down from her letter-packed desk like a yo-yo. She chats to the audience as though we are in the room with her, reads amusing letters out loud, plays music, talks about her life - anything, but write. As she chats, it's clear that this pithy, articulate and energetic woman is unlikely to have difficulty finding words. In her struggle to complete this particular column lies the story that structures David Rambo's engaging play that captures the life, spirit and times of a woman who became an institution in American journalism.
Actress Cathleen Fuller takes on the role of Ann Landers and wears it like a skin. She's full of chutzpah being witty Eppie Lederer, the no-nonsense, capable woman behind the pen name of Ann Landers, and I had fun entering the world she creates on stage.
Most of the thousands of letters that pour into Ann Landers' advice column concern marriage and sex, and Eppie whips out direct responses. To a man who has difficulty performing because his wife plumps up the pillows first, which reminds him of his mother, she advises, toss all pillows off the bed. Some require plain common sense advice; others are poignant. To a teenager considering suicide because he knows he is homosexual in an age of stigma, she praises him for this first step of seeking help from her, and she tells him that homosexuality occurs among 20 percent of the world's population and that it is present from birth. Find good counseling, she advises.
Landers started the column in 1955, when homosexuality was hidden and seeking counseling was not accepted. Her column, with its well-researched honesty helped to make therapy acceptable. She educated as well as advised and, as Landers admits on stage, her own attitudes changed as she learned more and as social mores eased.
She believes in good marriages and in the constant maintenance that keeps them good, which makes her own story all the more touching.
Lady is a period play, and Fuller's Ann Landers belongs in the '70s of the play's setting. She is a trim, middle-aged woman, elegantly but simply styled, with a 1970s bouffant. Under Suzie Messerole's sure-handed direction and costume design, the coiffed hair is not over-the-top, and Fuller's acting feels straight-on authentic on Ron Peluso's detailed set.
The play lost momentum for me just once. Right before intermission, Landers lectures the audience about not smoking during the break. All the other issues she confronts remain timeless, but this finger-wagging feels dated and too didactic.
Landers engages the audience with direct address from the outset, and several times she asks for a show of hands on issues like, how long audience members have been married, and which way up they hang their toilet paper! It all makes for great fun, and it gives a fascinating glimpse of how far we have traveled socially since 1955.
The Lady with All the Answers, April 3 - April 27, 2008. Thursdays, 10:00 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays, 2:00 p.m. Tickets $20 - $30. Call 651- 292-4323 or www.historytheatre.com. History Theatre, 30, East 10th St., St. Paul.