The Lady With All The Answers

Newspaper Review

Mark Bretz – Ladue News, May 18, 2011

Story: On a night in June 1975, advice columnist Ann Landers sits before her trusty typewriter in the handsomely appointed study of her luxury, high-rise apartment overlooking Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. She ponders how to write what she tells her millions of readers is “the most difficult column I’ve written in 20 years” as America’s trusted counsel.

Since that October day in 1955 when her column debuted, “a date that will live in intimacy,” Landers has dispensed advice in straightforward, albeit clever, fashion on subjects both surprising and taboo. Now, the woman who staunchly has defended marriage and counseled against divorce for decades must inform her readers that her own, 36-year marriage has hit the rocks. She struggles mightily to find the right words and emotions to do so.

Highlights: David Rambo, who regularly contributes scripts to TV’s long-running “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” series, obtained permission from Landers’ daughter, Margo Howard, to comb through hundreds of letters and columns penned by the twin sister of that other famous advice columnist, “Dear Abby.” He put together this two-act, one-woman adaptation of Landers’ life that has been well-received in productions around the country and now makes its local debut in a stylish presentation offered by Max & Louie Productions.

Other Info: Associate artistic director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga allows her performer and company artistic director, Stellie Siteman, to do what she does best, mainly hold her audience captivated with a sure and poignant portrayal of “the lady with all the answers,” Ann Landers, who admitted she didn’t have an answer when her husband told her he was leaving her for another, and much younger, woman.

Siteman, though, is much too savvy to dwell on the negative and depressing aspects of Landers’ personal misfortunes, instead bringing out the woman’s impressive ability to deal with adversity in her own life as fully as she doled out recommendations to readers who could be serious or silly or sarcastic. In a series of vignettes, Siteman as Landers describes her whirlwind romance with Jules Lederer, a man of humble beginnings who eventually would build a business empire out of Budget Rent-A-Car. Landers proudly displays a fur coat given to her by Jules in which she had the words, “Jules’ wife,” inscribed.

While Siteman and Ronga smoothly collaborate on this endeavor, they can’t get around the major stumbling block that this is more a therapeutic confession than dramatic theater. Anyone familiar with Landers’ career likely will remember that famous column, although it may be surprising to realize it was written so long ago. While Siteman frequently addresses the audience in an attempt to open up the self-confessing aspect of the script, essentially it’s an affecting tale that recounts through the actress’ smooth interpretation the life of a real-life “Unsinkable Molly Brown” type who achieved fame and notoriety through spunk, self-discipline and good old-fashioned common sense.

Siteman successfully captures the sound of the nasal-toned Landers, and wig stylist Mary Peat makes her appear every bit the bouffant-splendored journalist. Christopher Waller’s set design carefully recreates the elegant look of Landers’ swank apartment while also filling it with an abundance of photos that underscore the writer’s strong devotion to family.

It’s carefully illuminated with Glenn Dunn’s design that emphasizes lamps as well as overhead lights. Paula Johnson contributes the no-nonsense suit adorning Siteman as well as other togs she wears in her apartment office, and Rusty Wandall incorporates soothing sounds of the era selected for play by Landers on her stereo.

“The Lady with All the Answers” is more interesting and informative than it is endearing, as Landers reminds us that she was the first person to use the word ‘homosexual’ in a newspaper, and how she addressed a wide array of sexual questions with aplomb and frankness that also could be quite clever. Ronga paces the production smoothly and Siteman makes Landers a most sympathetic and surprisingly vulnerable personality.

In the end, though, this solid and carefully crafted presentation is more like a curio piece in Landers’ apartment than a bona fide theatrical experience, artistic but not necessarily impassioned.