Lady with all the answers at CRT

Eppie Lederer. star of The Lady with All the Answers, plays Ann Landers, an advice columnist.

The opening play of Cortland Repertory Theatre’s 48th season (CRT) poses a real puzzler: What happens to one of the world’s foremost advice columnists when something happens for which advice doesn’t come easily?

David Rambo’s one-woman play The Lady With All The Answers takes place on a fateful night in late June, 1975. The setting is one of the rooms in the Lake Shore Drive apartment of Eppie Lederer, aka “Ann Landers” (Catherine Gaffney). This was the night Landers wrote the most difficult column of her career, informing her readers that she and her husband were divorcing. (Rambo’s play is drawn from Landers’ life and letters, with the cooperation of her daughter, Margo Howard, an off-stage character in the show.)

Landers is one of those peculiar journalistic by-gone icons; I remember Jane Curtain doing a Landers impression on “Saturday Night Live,” quacking lines like “You’ve got a geranium in the cranium!” (Landers had a lot of lines like that, and Rambo tries to fit in as many as possible.) Now that everyone with a Twitter account or a blog is trying to do what Landers did, it’s a good time to look back at how she did it.

So, the evening, as acted by Gaffney and directed by CRT’s Artistic Director Kerby Thompson, is an evening with the formidable Landers as she works on her column, talks to the audience, polling us about everything from marital regret to toilet paper etiquette, and filling in piquant details about a fairly extraordinary life. It certainly occurred to me that Landers may have had a deeper connection with her readers than they had with her. Certainly, I heard a lot of minutiae and trivia that I’d never heard before.

There’s a compelling intimacy in the way that Catherine Gaffney immediately establishes Landers’ authoritative Chicago honk and her ability to connect with people. Within moments, Gaffney is polling the room, razzing audience members, reading many famous letters from her column and, frankly, struggling with the right way to tell her readers about her divorce. It’s doubly ironic that Landers was so adamantly anti-divorce in her columns. She always urged her readers to try again, to keep trying no matter what. And here she is, on the cusp of divorce.

The details are in the diversions: Landers was a driven writer, but the show allows her moments to luxuriate, whether it’s her chocolate cravings, her love of music, or the times when she dons the coat her husband bought her, dancing around the room like Gilda Radner as Judy Miller on SNL. Thompson and his tech crew set up some sweet moments of Lander’s life, aided by subtle sound and lighting cues.

It’s apt that as Landers recounts celebrity encounters with everyone from LBJ to “Deep Throat” porn star Linda Lovelace, she compares herself to Hugh Hefner, another Midwesterner who capitalized on peoples’ need for sexual advice. In many ways, Landers’ column was a daily mainstream version of Playboy’s “The Playboy Advisor.” But, the tone changes from ribald sex stories to a heartbreaking letter from a suicidal 15-year-old gay person, and Landers’ underlying compassion for all people comes through.

The Lady With All The Answers, by David Rambo. Directed by Kerby Thompson, scenic design by Molly Hall, lighting design by Eric Behnke, costume design by Mark Reynolds, playing at CRT through June 15.

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