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The challenge of the celebrity bio-play is in striking a balance between the individual’s public and private faces; showing only the former feels like a shallow impression, but revealing only the latter robs the viewer of the familiarity of the ingrained connection. Playwright David Rambo executes this conceit with skill in The Lady With All the Answers, an intimate exploration of extraordinary woman Eppie Lederer as well as of her nom de plume, famous advice columnist “Ann Landers.” Stormfield Theatre’s production, as directed by Kristine Thatcher and performed by Diane Dorsey, has mixed results in giving credence to both halves of the same subject, but succeeds in conveying unshakable strength and reason that reinforce the larger-than-life timbre of a nationally treasured voice.

The play opens with the moment of truth for any writer, her deadline, which Eppie is evading late in the evening in her downtown Chicago apartment. Something is evidently amiss: the character hesitantly dips a careful toe into her family life and upbringing, including the famous rift with her twin sister and professional rival “Dear Abby,” but for the most part she retreats behind the Landers persona and elegantly procrastinates. The character seems touchy about how to approach Landers’s fame, her boggled mind — that people have no recourse but this stranger for their weird, personal troubles — hovering near condescension and judgment. Yet despite her saucy quips that come across more like barbs, Dorsey is generously effusive connecting with the audience as she takes informal polls and initiates some easy question-and-answer, her delight in their laughter and reactions providing a concentrated shot of warmth to the character. Eventually she confesses to the viewers, who she addresses as readers but treats as friends, that her column is held up because she can’t think of how to tell the readership about her — Eppie’s — impending divorce.

Michelle Raymond’s luxury home-office setting is littered with photos of other celebrities, many of them the “experts” to whom Eppie refers her readers’ questions; coupled with the lovely atmospheric lamplight by designer Tim Fox, the golden-rich room almost has the feel of a smoky, exclusive steakhouse. Sound design by Sergei Kvitko extends to a pristine turntable that turns out swoony standards great for wallowing. Every bit of available space between the walls and furniture is earmarked for Patricia A. York’s reams of properties, exhaustively filed and providing a font of opportunity for Dorsey to engage with her surroundings. Holly Iler’s costumes suit the inhabitant of a luxury fourteen-room apartment, giving Eppie tastefully rich style of a career woman to begin the play and, after the intermission, trading for a luxe dressing gown as well-fitted as a dress. Iler is also the source of a plush fur reminder of Eppie’s husband, a piece that — now that attitudes toward fur have changed somewhat — feels scandalous in its CEO’s-wife opulence.

The second act falls even later in the same night of reckoning, but this is where Dorsey hits her stride, leaving aside the tricky Landers mantle and plumbing Eppie’s deep convictions and strength of character. The things she kept out of the column seem to be the ones she holds dearest, most notably a two-week tour of Vietnam field hospitals, and the staggering work she undertook on behalf of the servicemen fighting a war she abhorred and lobbied against. The character betrays similar chutzpah in recounting the ways in which she pioneered in the press, as the first to describe a sex act (in hilariously clinical terms) on television and to frankly discuss homosexuality (with stoic compassion) in print. One-sided phone conversations throughout show different facets of this sage but exceptional woman as she is coolly polite to her sister, regretfully resolved with her husband, and plainly vulnerable with her daughter (Margo Howard, who collaborated with Rambo on the script). Ultimately, Dorsey makes Eppie into the real person whose exceptional qualities earned her Landers’s fame, and the character’s resolution is tender and rewarding.

Overall, this Lady may strike the viewer as somewhat different from what their imaginations drew from stern yet endearing words attached to a newspaper portrait; however, Thatcher and Dorsey surpass any skepticism in the empathetic presentation of Eppie’s true self, a trailblazing and entrepreneurial woman who seized opportunities to uniquely influence and shape American culture for half a century. This lighthearted and sad production reminds viewers why Ann Landers was so well-regarded by her readers and peers, but does its best work in drawing Eppie out into the spotlight where she belongs.


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