Ann Landers read her readers' letters in the bathtub, banged out her columns on a typewriter, wrote right here in Chicago for anyone and everyone, and batted away any back-office meddlers with the roar of a lioness of the printed word.
The late Tribune advice columnist Eppie Lederer, the real Ann Landers, had some distinguished successes. But the world has changed since Lederer's death six years ago at the age of 82.
Lederer's no-nonsense proudly middle-brow world now has to compete with fragmented blogs, Facebook indiscretions and talk-show confessionals.
Lederer, David Rambo's biographical drama "The Lady With All the Answers" reminds us, was a smart, straightforward, highly trusted woman who could move millions of ordinary Americans to action by simply laying out an issue and dispensing practical, well-researched advice on marriage, divorce, life, death, the hanging of toilet paper, the relative morality of pursuing a sexual kink in the Middle West, or wielding a dangerous vacuum cleaner in the buff.
Such folks discreetly wrote to Landers in astonishing numbers—even seemingly routine columns could snag 100,000 responses, and calls to action could stir millions, get legislation signed or change American social habits.
These exchanges involved tactile investments on both sides. To get the attention of Ann Landers required more than dashing off a quick e-mail. One had to unburden oneself on paper. And assuming there was a return address, one got the guts of a hard copy in return.
I first saw and wrote about "The Lady With All the Answers" in 2005, when Rambo's sweetly nostalgic piece premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego with the fine actress Randy Graff in the one and only role. It has taken a strikingly long amount of time for Landers to get back closer to home, where she is best understood.
Judith Ivey, an actress who knows her way around strong, no-nonsense women, is the star of BJ Jones' savvy and highly enjoyable new Northlight Theatre production. And instead of the simple theatrics used in the in-the-round California premiere, designer Tom Burch has built a replica of Lederer's old apartment on Lake Shore Drive. Landers would surely have approved.
Rambo's light and airy piece, which was clearly penned by a fan and also reflects the cooperative sensibilities of Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard, makes no attempt to be a culturally complex opus, nor a Landers-shattering expose. But then Lederer herself liked to say she'd much rather have her column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer Prize. And Rambo gets a great deal right here.
The play focuses not on the tedious sensationalism of rival twin sisters with their own competing columns but on Landers' actual columns and her incomparable relationship with her readers.
All one-person shows require some artificial reason why the character is talking, yet Rambo creates an easily accepted convention wherein Landers is merely addressing her readers, which also happens to be her audience.
Even smarter yet, he uses the drama of Lederer's need to tell her readers about the collapse of her marriage to create the requisite tension and vulnerability in the show. "I was so anti-divorce," Lederer reminisces in the piece, "my dateline could be Vatican City."
When it came to her own relationships, of course, Lederer did not have all the answers. But to her everlasting credit, she could admit when she was wrong, embrace her own imperfections, keep on ticking and make her readers love her all the more. It is a quality this play richly captures. And Ivey, who clearly enjoys the personal nature of this theatrical encounter, embraces it with relish and truth.
This is a warm and enjoyable show with broad audience appeal. It deserves a future life, especially in downtown Chicago.
Rambo also manufactures a juicy, behind-the-scenes quality that takes the viewer inside the manufacture of the column.
Plays about the agony of writing are tough, because the process is so inherently internal and potentially dull. But as Ivey paces around that famous Chicago apartment, Ann Landers' apartment, you feel as if you see the cogs turning inside the writer's head and darn good common sense emerging from a proud sausage grinder that always started and ended with honest Midwestern meat.
"The Lady With All the Answers" When: Through June 29Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., SkokieRunning time: 1 hour, 50 minutesTickets: $35-55 at 847-673-6300Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun