Peggy Sue Dunigan

Lady With All the Answers at The Rep

By - Nov 30th, 2009 12:09 pm
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Laura Gordon as columnist Ann Landers in the Rep's production of Lady with All the Answers. Photos by Jay Westhauser.

Laura Gordon as columnist Ann Landers in The Rep’s production of Lady With All the Answers. Photos by Jay Westhauser.

“Who writes to a newspaper columnist for advice anyway?”

This seemingly absurd question inspires one of The Rep’s holiday selections that opened at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater Friday night. The Lady With All the Answers features Resident Acting Company Member Laura Gordon in her first solo performance portraying the late advice columnist Eppie Lederer, better known to newspaper readers by her pseudonym,  Ann Landers.

Lederer began writing her syndicated column in 1955, reading and responding to millions of questions over the course of 47 years. This David Rambo play, directed for The Rep by J.R. Sullivan, presents an Ann Landers who considers herself   “a little square, but not a prude” — a person genuinely interested in solving human problems. Landers listened to her readers whether they were upper middle-class women questioning how to place toilet paper on the roll, or if they were teenagers asking how to reveal to others that they were gay. These readers never felt alone and were respected, despite their criticism or acceptance of Landers’ advice.

landers2The script cleverly reminisces about Landers’ life, including her “love at first sight” meeting with husband Jules, who became exceedingly successful in business as one of the co-founders of Budget Rent A Car. The Landers character talks about the tumultuous relationship she tolerated with her twin sister, Popo — the quick study to Eppie who ultimately wrote the “Dear Abby” column. What the production underscores during its two-hour time frame is that Landers answered her readers’ questions with seriousness and sincerity amid an ever-changing cultural climate.

In the 1950s when the column first ran, topics like sex, homosexuality, drunkenness, abuse and divorce were hidden from polite society and conversation. Landers would acknowledge these human frailties with concern while applying acceptance, respect and significance for the millions of people seeking her advice “who had no where else to turn.”

Gordon inhabits Landers with Midwestern intelligence and dignity, creating a stage persona that resembles the real-life figure physically, even while dancing on stage in a mink coat or excusing herself before intermission to “soak in the tub.” The actress deftly speaks to the audience while reading aloud actual Ann Landers letters and by interacting with the audience throughout several conversations.

When Landers is shown depending on unmatched “chutzpah” to overcome writer’s block before a morning deadline, Gordon captures the poignant and perplexing dilemma the columnist faced when attempting to write one of her most personal columns. That 1975 column would explain to readers that her 36-year marriage would end due to a heartbreaking decision which upends everything Landers (and Lederer) believed about succeeding in love.

Many of these issues in the regular column remain relevant in 2009, regardless of how television or Facebook may publicize every worry and anxiety in an individual’s life. Landers’ extensive career addressed crucial issues when the average person might be afraid to mention them or to ask with complete anonymity. When the last letter is read on the Quadracci Powerhouse stage to close the evening’s performance, the audience appreciates two exceptional women, Eppie Lederer and Laura Gordon, for exemplifying integrity and excellence in their uniquely distinguished lives.

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents The Lady With All the Answers through Dec. 20. For ticketing information, call 414-224-1761. To learn more, visit The Rep’s website.

Categories: Theater, VITAL

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