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The Lady With All The Answers
This solo play premiered in 2008 at the Pasadena Playhouse (with Mimi Kennedy) and is now at the Cherry Lane Theater with two-time Tony award-winning actor Judith Ivey as Landers. Ivey channels the legendary journalist with chutzpah and razor-sharp intelligence. Not only does the Texan-born actor affect a convincing Midwestern accent but with her bouffant hair style (courtesy of Paul Huntley and comfortably chic outfits (by Martin Pakledinaz). she looks something like the actual Ann Landers Above all Ivey captures Landers' sharp wit and eagle-eye for seeing life from a broader perspective. But she is also endearingly "one of us" and just a bit vulnerable.
When we first meet Eppie she's in her elegant Chicago study at a time of personal heartbreak: Her husband Jules is divorcing her . More on this later — but for the most of the play she'll share her experiences as a lovelorn columnist whose devoted readers were forever turning to her with their heartaches and problems. Much of what she tells us is hilariously funny, but there's plenty that's profoundly serious.
Ivey's Eppie continually pulls the audience in by breaking through the fourth wall and asking all sorts of personal questions. Some of theseare downright silly; for instance, "what is the proper way to hang a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom? But there are also more controversial ones dealing with sexuality, depression, suicide, and death.
Many of the juicier material is gleaned from the readers' letters that describe in detail their idiosyncratic and sometimes kinky behaviors (don't ask!). As Eppie reads aloud from and comments we get a portrait of the compassionate woman and understand why she influenced so many. No Pollyanna, she could sharply scold readers for feeling too sorry for themselves ("Kwithcherbellyachin', Buttercup. Take a bath."). But she also penned plenty of heartfelt responses to light a candle for a person going through a dark night of the soul.
Although the focus is on the arc of Eppie's amazingly prolific career, there are a few homespun scenes that index her childhood and outline the famously prickly relationship with her identical twin sister "Popo" who, just six month's after Eppie broke into print, published her own "Dear Abby" column which also became a hit. Eppie aptly sums up the ensuing love-hate relationship with "But I do love her. The little porcupine."
Probably the emotional section of this staged memoir revolves about the circumstances of Eppie's divorce from Jules Lederer, a successful rent-a-car entrepreneur who left her after 30-years for a younger woman. Ivey nails this painful event when she takes a pair of scissors from her desk, snips the sentimental label, "Jules' Wife" out of her fur coat's lining and tosses the label into a wastebasket. I can't recall a divorce ever re-enacted with such symbolic economy.
Neil Patel has provided a set replete with elegant mahogany furniture and a writing desk with an old-fashioned typewriter. Add to this refined decor mounds of readers' letters, stuffed into U.S. postal bags and the odd shopping bag under the coffee table. Nicole Pearce's lighting bathes everything with a soft glow. Under BJ Jones direction, this story of "The Lady Who Had All the Answers" proceeds with a minimum of fuss.
Ann Landers was the Oprah of her day and Ivey reincarnates her with snap, crackle and charm. Though younger theatergoers may not know who Ann Landers is her story is anything but dated in its gutsy attitude toward life.