She was an everyday psychologist, dispensing her common sense advice to scores of readers who sought her wisdom on everything from relationships and personal habits to depression and sexual identity. She respected and took seriously the confusion and pain expressed by her readers in the letters they wrote and considered her answers with the assistance of experts. With compassion and a healthy dose of wit, she penned her straightforward, no-nonsense replies.
The woman behind the famous column was Esther Pauline "Eppie" Friedman Lederer. And her story is the subject of David Rambo’s one-woman play, now gracing the stage at ACT Theatre, featuring Julie Briskman in the title role.
"The Lady With all The Answers" is an engaging portrait of a woman whose advice helped change the social landscape of the last half-century, as it transitioned from the relative calm of the 1950s to the constant flux of the 70s.
It’s the story of Lederer’s struggle to cope with the changes in the world around her, as she tackles major themes, such as marriage and divorce, war and peace, celebrity and privacy.
Set in the comfortable, albeit disorderly, study of Eppie’s Chicago apartment, the play revolves around the night in June 1975 when she composed the letter to her readers announcing her divorce after 36 years of what she had considered a perfect marriage.
As she fidgets over the difficult task at hand, the famed columnist breaks down the fourth wall and shares some of her favorite letters and memories with the audience.
She talks lovingly of her husband, Jules Lederer, a man with only a ninth grade education, who rose to become the founder and owner of the successful Budget Rent-a-Car company.
Slated to marry another, Eppie meets Lederer while shopping with her twin sister, Pauline Esther "Popo" Friedman Phillips (later known as Dear Abby) for bridal veils and it was "love at first sight" for both of them. Three months later, they wed.
After meandering around the country, the Lederers eventually settled in Chicago and as fate would have it, Eppie fell into the columnist job after the original "Ann Landers" died. "Can you believe that luck?" she marvels, graciously thinking to add, "Not her luck, I mean." And the rest, as we say, is history.
The Ann Landers column grew in popularity until it was syndicated in some 1,200 newspapers across the country.
Eppie answered each and every letter that had a return address.
Her sister helped her handle the flow initially, but then a year later, she, too, became an advice columnist under the name of Abigail Van Buren. As Eppie wryly puts it, "Popo was a quick study."
The missives she chooses to share with the audience range from the outrageous – what to do about a husband who greets guests swinging from a tree and dressed as a chimp – to the mundane – discussing the proper way to mount a roll of toilet paper (an issue that elicited over 15,000 responses!).
And then there are the more sober communiqués, like the one from a teen who had written in desperation, confessing his homosexuality.
Eppie continues to procrastinate, musing about her writing habits (she often read her correspondence while having a bubble bath), her celebrity connections and her memorable trips to Vietnam during the war, as well as her follow-up phone calls to the families of the wounded soldiers she met over there.
She polls the audience on a number of issues, models one of the many fur coats Jules bought her and chats briefly with several members of her family on the phone.
After the flowing stream of reminiscences slows, however, Eppie is forced to bare the truth about her marriage.
We hear her admit that "the lady with all the answers doesn’t have the answer to this one" – the question of why, after advising so many readers to persevere through their marital problems rather than get a divorce, she has decided not to take her own advice.
Under Valerie Curtis-Newton’s deft direction, Briskman brings the irrepressible and spirited Ann Landers to life, making her warm, funny and most importantly, human.
She captures the spirit and dimensions of her character perfectly; never afraid to show the famed columnist’s more sensitive and vulnerable side. The audience easily responds to Briskman because she establishes an easy intimacy with her viewers early on in the show.
We join in the fun as she reads some of the more amusing letters and we willingly participate in her polls, laughing at our own foibles.
And when she grows quiet, fumbling awkwardly for the right words, we are touched by the pain and hurt she has bravely chosen to share with us.
Briskman also does a commendable job in illustrating the love Ann Landers had for her work and the heartfelt compassion she had for her readers.
"The Lady With All the Answers" is an entertaining and moving play that succeeds in getting at the essence of a unique woman who became America’s favorite advice columnist.
"The Lady With All the Answers" runs through October 31 at ACT Theatre. For ticket information: (206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org