Please Advise

Ann Landers is at the center of a well-acted one-woman show that's light but not insubstantial

Be honest: Would you really want to spend an evening with an advice columnist? By definition, she would be a know-it-all and maybe even a scold, dispensing opinions in such a steady stream that somehow, the whole encounter would revolve around her, rather than the people she would advise.

Yet Ann Landers, or at least the version of her onstage courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company, turns out to be a more than tolerable companion. She's frank and extroverted and funny, but never so full of herself that she forgets that her job is to provide comfort and guidance to other people--people whose troubles may initially seem peculiar, but who have a great deal in common with each other, and with Landers herself.

The famed, deceased advice columnist, whose real name was Eppie Lederer, is the subject of a one-woman show by David Rambo. ATC's production, which opened last week, is deftly directed by Samantha K. Wyer and boasts a splendid scenic design by Tom Burch, but the prime attraction is the woman on stage, Nancy Dussault.

The term "veteran actress" is too often merely a euphemism for "old-timer," but Dussault is a veteran in the true sense: a deeply experienced performer who can slip into a role like this and bring it fully to life without displaying a single little actorly trick. Dussault is so engaging and believable that the play, The Lady With All the Answers, often seems more substantial than it really is.

This is not a poor script, but Ann Landers isn't much of a character on whom to hang a one-woman show. Yes, she was tremendously famous, with her column read by 90 million people a day at the peak of her career; she wrote the column from 1955 to her death in 2002. (Her desk, by the way, is now owned by Dan Savage, perpetrator of the Savage Love column.) But aside from the fact that she received nearly 2,000 letters a day and lived in luxurious lodgings in Chicago, Eppie lived a rather unremarkable life.

She married the man who would grow rich building the Budget Rent-a-Car empire, and she groomed social connections that included famous doctors and a Supreme Court justice, but she basically was just a practical, good-natured Midwestern socialite. Every show like this has to hinge on some crisis, but the only crisis Rambo could come up with was Eppie's 1975 divorce, and her very brief struggle to find a way to announce this in her column. For many people, especially Eppie Lederer, divorce is not just a little problem that can be easily shrugged off, but still, it's not the most compelling hook for a stage play--especially since Eppie doesn't seem to have been deeply traumatized by it.

But these one-character shows have to be structured in a certain way: The character faces a crisis, which spurs her to look back over her past in order to come to terms with her present in time for final curtain. In Eppie's case, there's just not enough drama to make an audience fear that her life and career are about to collapse. A much better example of tension in a one-character show is I Am My Own Wife, which Wyer directed at ATC in early 2007. I can't help feeling that The Lady With All the Answers would have been far more interesting, perhaps even gripping, as a two-character study, detailing either Eppie's marriage through the years or her sometimes bitter rivalry with her twin sister, who wrote the Dear Abby column.

Be that as it may, a good rule of criticism is to discuss what happened, not what didn't happen: What ATC offers is an amusing if harmlessly shallow portrait of a fairly ordinary woman who was admirable in several quiet little ways. The Ann Landers column tended to promote traditional Midwestern morality, but over the years, Eppie came to advocate compassion for homosexuals (although she did not approve of their practice), defend abortion rights and advocate gun control. At the same time, to the chagrin of many liberals, she promoted animal testing for medical research. Actually, she favored just about anything that promised to help people live together in health, safety and justice.

She wasn't a lightweight, nor did she leave all the work to her staff. In The Lady With All the Answers, she tells a touching story about spending two weeks visiting military hospitals in Vietnam, then coming home to make 2,500 phone calls on behalf of the wounded soldiers she met there.

The script has Eppie spend a lot of time telling stories like that, reading sample letters (and her answers) and even taking a few live audience polls on burning topics like which way to hang toilet paper. Dussault immediately establishes a rapport with the audience; her Eppie is no grande dame, but just a regular gal, talking a steady stream that flows forward on quick, nasal Midwestern vowels. She's energetic but not hyperactive, and tremendously likable; much of her work has to do with pulling the audience toward her, rather than blasting her personality into the balcony.

"I may be square, but I'm no prude," Eppie says. Similarly, The Lady With All the Answers may be light, but it's not insubstantial.