Advice columnist Ann Landers had for decades been famous as “the lady with all the answers” when, on a night in 1975, she sat down to write the most difficult column in her career.  “The lady with all the answers doesn’t have an answer to this one,” wrote Ann … in the column which announced to her readers the end of her 36-year marriage.

It is on this night that David Rambo sets his one-person play, The Lady With All The Answers, getting its Los Angeles premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse and featuring a tour-de-force performance by Mimi Kennedy as Ann Landers.

The play begins with the voices of Ann’s readers, an overlapping litany of their problems (courtesy of sound designer Lindsay Jones), and the next thing you know, it’s Ann herself (or about as perfect a facsimile as can be imagined) standing in front of us in the elegantly furnished study of her fourteen-room high-rise Chicago apartment.

Miss Landers (born Eppie Friedman) is reading from a sampling of her 900 letters a day, deciding which to include in the book she is writing. The one from the wife whose husband liked to dress up as Tarzan and await their dinner guests in a tree—that one is a keeper.

The Lady With All The Answers begins as a sort of “Ann Landers—Standup,” the columnist joking with the Playhouse audience, finding out how many have been married 25, 40, even 50 years. She informs those in attendance that half of her mail comes from men. She jokes about her identical twin sister Popo, aka Abigail Van Buren, aka rival columnist “Dear Abby.”  “I need a call from Popo like a giraffe needs a strep throat,” she quips.

Ann Landers will be up late tonight, Eppie tells her audience. “Like an old streetwalker, that’s when I do my best work.”  People write to her because they need someone to listen to their side of the story.  She gets so many letters that “my mailman has a hernia,” she jokes, and adds with warranted pride, “They all get a written reply.”

But it’s not her book that occupies Eppie’s mind the most tonight. It’s that darn column she’s got to write. “Dear Readers,” she begins, seated in front of her IBM electric typewriter. “This is the most difficult column I have ever tried to put together in my 20 years as Ann Landers,” she continues to type, and then … 

When an advice columnist can’t think of what to write, there’s nothing like some chocolate to take her mind off her troubles … and some reminiscing, which she does, directly to the audience.

Eppie recalls the two Sioux City twins with the nearly identical names (Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther), and how, six months after Ann Landers’ column had taken off coast-to-coast, “Dear Abby” suddenly appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, with no warning.  (That was not a pleasant surprise.)

It’s hard for Eppie to tell her readers that her marriage has ended. Only six years earlier, she’d written a column about her perfect life, perfect husband, perfect marriage of 30 years, about how she’d been planning a double wedding with Popo when she fell head over heels for the man who was selling her her wedding veil, the man she married three months later.  How can Ann Landers tell her readers that she and Julius are divorcing, she who had always been “more anti-divorce than the Vatican” in her column?  How can she tell her readers that her husband is in love with a woman younger than his daughter?

Following a soothing bath (and intermission) Eppie goes on to talk about sex (the most popular topic in her column), and we see a woman who was years ahead of her time, whether it was about abortion, or prostitution, or in one of the play’s most moving segments, about homosexuality.  She also reveals her opposition to the Vietnam war. “We lost the bloom of our youth in that war,” she says of the 55,000 Americans who died, and recalls in loving detail her 1967 visit to Vietnam, the 10 or more hours a day she spent visiting “every bed in every ward in every hospital.”

Like January’s Orson’s Shadow did with Orson Welles and Vivien Leigh and this past summer’s Looped did with Tallulah Bankhead, The Lady With All The Answers allows its audience to spend a couple of hours with a legendary figure.  Like 2005’s Tea At Five, there is but one character up on the stage. Unlike T@5’s Katharine Hepburn, however, Ann Landers makes the audience her costar. Playwright Rambo understands that Eppie’s life was about interchange with her readers, so it makes perfect sense for her to interact with us, and the feeling is exhilarating. 

As Eppie/Ann, Mimi Kennedy does absolutely breathtaking work.  Simply mastering the hour and a half of uninterrupted dialog is a feat the mind boggles at.  Add to that a performance which recreates Ann Landers’ distinctive Midwest voice (with a hint of Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine’s pursed lips) yet never becomes caricature and you have what is sure to be remembered as one of the finest performances given by an actress this year. Kennedy shows us Eppie’s no-nonsense wisdom, and the compassion she felt for her readers, such as the 15-year-old gay boy who turned to Ann Landers when suicide seemed the only option.  A phone call from husband Julius reveals the depth of Eppie’s love for him, despite his betrayal, and the pain which her upbeat words to him cannot hide.  By the time The Lady With All The Answers comes to an end, Kennedy and Rambo have allowed us to feel that we know this legend, warts and all, and the realization that she is no longer among us is a sad one.

Director Brendon Fox deserves highest marks for his collaboration with Rambo and Kennedy. So does the play’s design team.  Gary Wissmann’s set transports us to Chicago’s stylish Lake Shore Drive, Holly Poe Durbin’s two costumes plus mink coat are, we feel, just what Eppie would have worn, and Carol F. Doran’s Ann Landers wig is exactly the hairstyle we remember.  Dialect coach Joel Goldes deserves credit for helping Kennedy with that distinctive Ann Landers Midwest voice. Finally, Trevor Norton’s lighting design deserves special mention, for it truly seems that the light in Eppie’s apartment is coming from the lamps scattered around the room, with a separate hall light illuminating the upstage entryway.  There’s also a very effective moment when the lighting dims to recreate the talk show ambiance of Ann’s appearance on the Irv Kupcinet show with fellow guest Linda “Deep Throat” Lovelace, and when Ann turns off the lights at play’s end, moonlight continues shining into the room from outside.

Though Ann’s daughter Margo now writes her own advice column twice a week, there will always and forever be only one Ann Landers in the hearts of Americans who once read her column daily.  The Lady With All The Answers is a beautiful, funny, and entirely fitting tribute to that lady.

Pasadena Playhouse,39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
October 29, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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