note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
C’mon, admit it. You read the Dear Abby and Ann Landers’ syndicated advice columns in the newspapers with your morning coffee, and laughed at their crisp, pithy answers while wondering if people actually sent in those screwball letters.
In the 1970s, did people really do their housework in the nude, then write to a wise-cracking news columnist for advice on whether it was okay to continue doing so? Did readers ever questions these women’s credentials, or did they blindly take their advice, especially on hot button topics, like homosexuality, the sexual revolution, suicide? Most people did, but disgruntled readers also chastised the twin sisters for their lousy advice in print.
“What kinda nut writes to a newspaper for advice anyhow?” she asks rhetorically. “You and you and you,” she points to individuals in the audience. “You need someone to listen to you.”
David Rambo’s one-woman play about Ann Landers, a.k.a. Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer, formerly of Sioux City, Iowa, focuses on one night in June 1975, when we hear some of those actual letters and gain insight into Landers’ life and her deliriously divine, 36-year storybook marriage to handsome Jules Lederer, of Budget-Rent-a-Car fame. Sitting at her typewriter in her Chicago home around 11 p.m., Landers organizes and separates letters she intends to use for a book she’s writing. Ruminating on which letters are poignant, she reads them aloud to her unseen visitors, whom she addresses, taking polls at times, on topics such as how we hang our toilet paper, based on a letter that drew 15,000 response letters. While this tack holds the audience’s interest, it’s contrived in this late-night setting.
She also answers phone calls from her daughter, Margo, (former wife of actor Ken Howard, who lives in Cambridge with her surgeon-doctor husband; is a prolific writer; biographer of her mother; and has her own column, Dear Margo; and helped Rambo with this play). Ann’s twin sister, Abby, a.k.a. Pauline Esther, also calls, as does her husband Jules from Hawaii.
Ann reveals sibling rivalry, making sure we know she established her advice column first, six months before her sister followed suit. “Blood is thicker than water, but boils fast, too,” she cracks.
She justifies her lack of credentials by saying she always consulted with experts before giving advice, an easy task for her, because she knew all the right people, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and an endless list of celebrities.
She reveals little-known personal facts, too, including a 33-hour stint overseas in May 1967, during the Vietnam War, visiting injured soldiers in hospitals. On her return, she called 2,500 parents and loved ones to deliver their messages.
Playing nostalgic, mood LP records, Landers also ponders her personal dilemma before the curtain falls on Act I - how to tell her readers that after 35 years, her idyllic marriage is ending. She questions if this could end her career, given her oft-published, staunch anti-divorce stand.
Actress Stephanie Clayman, directed by Nora Theatre Co.’s assistant director, Daniel Gidron, captures Ann Landers’ down-to-earth, small-town, optimistic personality. Brynna Bloomfield has designed a handsome 1970s tasteful but not overly ostentatious set of Landers’ study, with her large LP record player, typewriter, phone, hidden box of chocolates, and full-length fur coat slung over a chair.
BOX INFO: Two-act, one-woman play, written by David Rambo, starring Stephanie Clayman, directed by Daniel Gidron; appearing now through June 26, with the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; matinees, Sunday at 2 p.m. Several free related events. Tickets, $35; seniors, $25; students with valid ID, $$20; student rush, $15. Call 866-811-4111, visit online at www.centralsquaretheater.org or the Box Office. Group discounts, call 617-576-9278, Ext. 210.