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This is his 'Answer'

THEATER

A play about Ann Landers? David Rambo was already awake and smelling the coffee. He'd grown up reading her.

October 19, 2008|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

Dear David:

You've worked as an actor in New York and Hollywood, made a bundle selling real estate and written plays about global-warming scientists and a Texas mega-church. Now you work on one of the hottest shows on television, "CSI." So why the fascination with someone as retro as Ann Landers?

-- Curious

--

David RAMBO smiles. "First of all," he says, "she's very theatrical." By that he means Landers, a.k.a. Esther Pauline (Eppie) Friedman Lederer, knew how to leave an impression -- from her famously big hair to the snappy advice columns that made her one of the most influential women in America for more than 40 years.

Although Landers could sound like a neighborhood yenta, she also was a social and political dynamo, conservative on some issues and liberal on others. In this age of blogs and reality TV, it's hard to remember that she was ahead of her time when it came to talking frankly about topics such as alcoholism, sexuality and cancer. Her columns appealed to lovelorn teens and bored housewives, but also to businessmen, college students and at least one small-town Pennsylvania boy.

"She helped me get through my adolescence," says Rambo, who read her every morning in the Pottstown Mercury. The 53-year-old writer credits her with inspiring him later in life. "It may seem nutty to say, but I sold some houses because of her, and I made it through some embarrassing auditions because she always said, 'Deal with it and move on.' "

After Lederer died six years ago at age 83, Rambo was afraid her legacy might be forgotten. So he wrote a play that, like Ann Landers' columns, combined "a little sex, a little heart and a lot of humor." "The Lady With All the Answers," starring Mimi Kennedy, will open Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse.

"Lady" -- which premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2005 -- is a one-person show unusual in that it is neither a revue nor a set of stories within stories. Instead, Rambo has created a running dialogue between Landers and her readers (or, in this case, the playgoers). "She was an artist who really needed her audience," he says as he sips a latte at a coffee bar near the playhouse. Without their questions, she had nothing to say.

On stage, Landers presides over her elegant Chicago apartment, ensconced with her typewriter and ubiquitous mailbags. When she isn't writing, or talking about her writing, her life or her twin sister (the rival columnist known as Dear Abby), she is cajoling and counseling the front rows, taking polls and doing whatever else she would do in print.

How many of you are married? For how long? Which direction do you think the toilet paper should be hung?

Given how crucial Landers' readers were, Rambo knew he couldn't write "Lady" without quoting her letters. That meant winning the blessing of her only child, Margo Howard, an advice columnist herself, as well as keeper of her mother's copyrights.

"It wasn't a snap," he recalls. "I approached the family shortly after she had died and their lawyer said, 'Come back in a year.' " When he finally talked with Howard, he says, "It was the Inquisition. My religion, politics, married, gay, straight. She wanted to know everything."

Howard had not been happy with some past portrayals of Landers. "However I realized David was one of those people, a generation younger than I, who grew up with Mother and felt great admiration for her," says Howard, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. "I had been advised not to get mixed up with anybody writing a play, but I said OK."

"Lady" is built around an evening in 1975 when Landers struggles to compose the most difficult column of her career -- in which she announces the breakup of her 36-year marriage to businessman Jules Lederer. While sorting out her own feelings, she tries to gauge the reaction of readers and editors. "She had to tell them that she'd be getting a divorce, which she had advocated against for years," Rambo says. "She also had to admit she wasn't the lady with all the answers."

The dilemma not only is a good hook for a story, it gives Rambo a chance to show us Landers the writer and Lederer the person behind the public persona.

"The only image many people had of Ann Landers is the picture that ran with her byline," says Brendon Fox, who is directing the play. "The bouffant hair in a black-and-white image that only changed every 15 years. David takes that image and makes it full of color and nuance. We see there is so much more to this woman. She rarely injected her personal life into her columns. So David is saying, 'Let's turn the mirror back onto her.' "

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