Ann Landers Backstory is Glossed Over in The Lady with All the Answers at Herberger Theater
The Lady with All the Answers is an agreeably entertaining character study in search of a story. Its direction by Samantha K. Wyer is faultless; its set, where we are left to visit Eppie Lederer (best known to you and me as the late, syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers), is breathtaking (note to scenic designer Tom Burch: Please come decorate my parlor!); its one-woman performance by the always-charming Nancy Dussault is sublime. I left Arizona Theater Company's production last Saturday night feeling both satisfied and somehow ripped off, because Dussault's amiable Ann made me want to know better the lady in question, a privilege David Rambo's script failed to deliver.
Rambo's slight, presentational profile suggests a woman with a slender backstory. In fact, Lederer was a courageous pacesetter whose pro-choice, anti-divorce commentaries had a lasting impact on her readership, which followed her daily column for 47 years. She feuded famously with her identical twin sister, the author of the "Dear Abby" column; got into trouble with readers who resented her support of homosexuals; and squabbled with editors who didn't want to publish her more sensitive material.
Nearly all this stuff is glossed over. The conceit of this biography is that Lederer, on this night in 1975, is writing an essay about the dissolution of her 36-year marriage, an essay from which she is distracted by us, the audience, to whom she speaks directly about her past, her passions (chocolates, furs, her husband), her career. Somehow, despite all this cozy chatter (punctuated, of course, by readings from favorite Ann Landers letters — from a woman who's worried about which way to hang her toilet paper; a teen afraid that he's gay; a man who's having an affair with his pony), we never hear much about why her husband strayed; why she and her sister feuded; how she could defend gay rights while also writing that homosexuality was a "dysfunction" and "unnatural."
Instead, we hear a tidy recap of Lederer's past, and her repeated concern that her divorce will end her career because she's been such a proponent of readers hanging in there and "making marriage work." But her anxiety about losing her husband to a woman younger than their own daughter appears to have no higher emotion attached to it — no anger, guilt, or fear — and so we're left not knowing this woman with whom we've just spent two hours, who's done nothing but talk about herself.
Thanks to Dussault's enigmatic performance, we also leave convinced that we've spent that time with Lederer herself. In a colossal helmet of an Ann Landers wig and a bedazzled navy pantsuit, Dussault paces the stage, tossing out quips about sex and sharing bits of naughty letters she's busily compiling into a book. Her Eppie Lederer is so warm and beguiling that we care a lot less, in the end, that we've been given a self-deprecating snow job by a playwright whose primary agenda was not to reveal an Ann Landers we didn't already know, but to keep her from us. Which might very well be just how Mrs. Lederer, a columnist who wrote about her readers' privates lives but rarely her own, would have wanted it.
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