Citizen Staff Writer
By July 1, 1975, the moral and cultural tide in America had turned and society was churning in its wake. Yesterday’s values were worthless. Christians and conservatives were desperate for a lifeline to save their sinking Ship of State. Even the venerable advice columnist Ann Landers was getting a divorce.
That’s the controversial time period for “The Lady With All the Answers,” Arizona Theatre Company’s new production opening in previews Saturday. As written by David Rambo, the lady is Landers herself, portrayed in a one-woman show performed by Broadway veteran and Tony- nominee Nancy Dussault.
Ann Landers’ daily columns of advice to the lovelorn ran in newspapers (including the Tucson Citizen) from 1955 until she died in 2002. During that time, society’s accepted sexual practices were changing faster than Landers could write about them. But those shifting perceptions were only a part of the vast cultural fabric she covered, answering questions daily from her millions of readers. No topic was considered off-limits as the barriers of propriety kept crumbling.
Still on the way were personal crises over illicit drug use, AIDS, open marriages, mixed racial marriages, gay marriages and gun control.
“What I respond to is, she is funny, perceptive and smart,” Dussault says of her solo role as Ann Landers. “She is so gutsy and so out there. People responded to her because she was fun, and because she was tough.
“One of her secret: She was good at keeping in touch with high-ranking politicians and experts,” Dussault adds. “She always stayed so connected, and nothing scared her.”
Back before the Internet (it wasn’t that long ago) people gathered around the Ann Landers campfire, seeking the warmth of her fair-minded wisdom. She valued the sacrament of marriage above all else, but she also supported the pro-choice movement for abortion rights. She came to see that homosexuality was not a choice, but a characteristic established at birth.
“She was one of the first to recommend readers to Alcoholics Anonymous,” says Samantha K. Wyer, the play’s director. “And she believed in birth control.”
Wyer began making her own artistic choices by doing online research about Ann Landers, the pen name for Esther Pauline “Eppie” Friedman Lederer. Yes, her twin sister was Pauline Esther “Popo” Friedman Phillips who wrote the Dear Abby newspaper advice column 1955-95. Popo got her start by helping sister Eppie. But within six months, sibling rivalry led Popo to break away and start her own advice column.
“The first Ann Landers was a nurse named Ruth Crowley,” Wyer says. “Then Eppie Lederer took over the column. From the beginning, she was always straightforward and direct.”
Before her career as an advice columnist, Lederer was a political activist working to get Joe McCarthy pushed out of office.
“The connections she made in that campaign gave her the edge to get the job writing the Ann Landers column,” Wyer says. “And she had a very strong Midwestern work ethic.”
Wyer learned Lederer was committed to answering every letter she received that wasn’t anonymous, which would have been approximately 500 letters every day. Men accounted for nearly half of that mail, Wyer says. At the peak of Ann Landers’ popularity, Lederer had a staff of 11 secretaries to help out with all that typing.
“The Lady With All the Answers” is set in Lederer’s lovely Lake Shore Drive apartment in Chicago, where she sits with stacks of mail and an electric typewriter. She is writing her next column, about divorce – her own. As she delays actually writing anything, reminiscing about her 36 happy years of marriage (at least to her), she also talks to the audience about the many subjects and letters she has received over 20 years.
While she helped save many marriages, she could not save her own.
Instead of a surprise ending, the play, taken from Landers’ published columns and written with the permission of her estate, is filled with the lady’s famous insight, wit and responsibility. Even when the nation’s streets were filled with counterculture hippies, anti-war demonstrators and police squads in riot gear, Landers kept a cool head with common sense answers and an unwavering respect for the opinions of experts.
In Landers’ view, a person with the best knowledge on a particular subject was not an elitist. It was a person worth quoting in her column.
“In the play, she actually asks the audience questions, and expects answers,” Wyer says, “either by raising hands or giving one-word answers.
“Because of that, the play never feels like a monologue. It is a dialogue with the audience.”
Dussault doesn’t think she’s doing a monologue, either. As Wyer leads Dussault along the pathway from one plot point to the next, the actor as Landers is pondering tender moments from past letters, commenting on her heartbreaking trips to Vietnam, making asides to the audience, remembering visits with President Nixon and others, in between taking phone calls from her daughter, Margo.
“The first thing I always do with a new play is learn all the words,” says Dussault. “That’s partly because I’m also a singer, and I always learn all the words to a song before I try to sing it.
“So I learn the play’s lines completely apart from the play. It helps keep my mind from feeling cluttered in rehearsals.
“Another trick is to learn the ending first. That way, the piece doesn’t seem so endless. After that, I start working on the accent, then thinking about the time period. I kind of do it in layers.”
As the character written on the page begins to take over the actor talking on stage, Dussault starts to wonder how Lederer used her hands when she talked. And whether she was a fast walker.
“I think she must have been a fast walker,” Dussault says. “She always had so much energy. She always had to be doing something.
“I’m sure the audience will like her as a person. She is lively and interesting and has a way with words.
“Actually,” says Dussault, pausing thoughtfully, “I hope I become more like her, too.”
IF YOU GO
What: Arizona Theatre Company presents “The Lady With All the Answers” by David Rambo
When: Various times Oct. 18-Nov. 8, officially opening Oct. 24
Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
Price: $26-$50, half-price student rush tickets and other discounts are offered
Info: 622-2823, www.aztheatreco.org