Answering Machine

Actorly gusto highlight a pleasing show about newspaper advice columnist

She really didn't have all the answers. But she sure as heck had a lot of them.

That "she" is known as Ann Landers, newspaper advice columnist extraordinaire, who provided sure­minded opinions to millions of eager readers beginning in the mid-­1950s, thousands of whom wrote letters seeking her guidance about everything from sexual predilection to teenager woes to the correct way to install toilet paper—which, judging from the number of letters she received about the subject, is one of the most important issues we wrestle with in our lives.

Live Theatre Workshop's production of The Lady With All the Answers allows us to get a literally up-close glimpse of the down-to-earth advice mill that she was for decades, grinding people's problems into flour for their daily bread.

The local theater has found an ably suited actress to carry this one­woman show, and while the play itself is about as deep as good topsoil in the desert, Lesley Abrams pours herself into the role with grace and good­natured gusto. Playwright David Rambo has Landers tossing out a few bon mots to the audience without offering real insight into the woman. It's actually less than Ann Landers revealed about herself as she dispensed commonsense wisdom, well­worded and occasionally controversial, in her syndicated column.

The play gives us the Lady in her apartment in 1975, chatting with us as she goes through a file box of her preserved columns, trying to pull them together for a book featuring her best work. Of course she must share many them with us for our entertainment. Abrams as Ann addresses us directly, and she establishes a comfortable intimacy with us immediately. Warm, personable and not a bit snooty, this Midwestern gal Ann Landers is our pal, just like she seemed in those columns.

However, that material ­gathering and her chattiness is ultimately recognizable as an example of that well­-practiced and universal tool of writers: distraction. Landers latches onto the anecdotes she shares with us because she needs to write the most difficult column of her career, she confesses, but really doesn't want to. So she regales us with inside jokes and stories behind the letters asking her advice; she polls the audience for their opinions about this and that; she delivers a little autobiographical information, some of which seems familiar and some surprising.

Her real name was Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer, called Eppie, we learn. She was one of a set of twins born on July 4, 1918. Her twin's name was Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, called Popo. Eppie landed the Ann Landers gig at the Chicago Sun­Times in 1955, when the original "Ask Ann Landers," Ruth Crowley, died. Eppie won the job by boasting quite truthfully that she had connections and that her gigantic Rolodex was stuffed with an impressive roster of big­wigs, often met through her pal Hubert Humphrey. Popo became "Dear Abby" a year later, and that hurt Eppie deeply and was at least partially the basis of a feud that lasted for years.

In 1939 Eppie married Jules Lederer, who was the owner of the burgeoning Budget Rent­a­Car company, in a double ceremony with PoPo and her intended. It's a bit surprising—unnerving even—to learn that she dumped the man she was to marry when she caught a glimpse of Lederer while she was shopping for her bridal veil for the wedding with the original guy. There is obviously a lot more to Eppie than Rambo chooses to give us, leaving depth and intrigue, usually the good stuff of good stories, unexplored.

Eventually Eppie does disclose the nature of the column she resists writing. After years of advising couples they should always work to save their marriages, she is enduring the unimaginable event of her own marriage's end due to the unfaithfulness of her hubby. She is just a tiny bit distraught, not so much about the divorce itself, it seems, but because of that letter she must write in which she must concede a failure. That too might be fodder for Rambo's script if he really wanted it to be a play. But he settles for something much less.

Now, I know that most small theater companies here are not funded well, and shortcuts must be taken in some of the aspects of play production. But Live Theatre Workshop is too good a theater to put a very good actress in a very bad wig and to show us what was supposed to be an opulently appointed apartment furnished worse than a college student's living room. The nature of what we see when we attend a play is as vital to our experience as the players, the script and the direction (here by Sabian Trout). The set (and costumes and lighting and sound) may not be received consciously by many, but it is still important information and we take it all in and it either adds to or takes from the whole. Just as surely, it leaves an impression by which the experience of the play, as well as the theater company's quality, is judged. Here, there had to be other options without spending a ton of money or time.

The Lady with All the Answers is a slight but pleasing piece, thanks to the efforts of Abrams and director Trout. You won't be changed, but you probably will be entertained. (Just don't look at the furniture.)

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