It isn’t hard to find someone to give you advice these days. Social media has opened the floodgates for an endless array of friends and strangers to offer their two cents on all of life’s conundrums. But before the Internet, options were limited: Talk to a friend, family member or counselor.
Gulfport Community Players’ new production “The Lady With All the Answers” highlights the writer that blazed a path with option D. The one-woman show starring Elizabeth Bell as Esther “Eppie” Lederer – more famously known by her pen name, Ann Landers – features Eppie herself recounting the history of her groundbreaking nationally syndicated advice column from her Lake Shore Drive apartment in 1975, as she works to craft the most difficult piece of her career.
If the prospect of seeing a one-person show sends up a few flags for you, hear me out. It’s true: all too often, solo shows are vanity projects, fluff pieces about historical figures featuring hammy impressions, or vehicles for mediocre actors trying to force their big break. The script for “The Lady” by David Rambo could have gone in any of those directions. He covers a lot of ground and, for the first bit of act one, we’re wondering “Is this the show? Is she just going to talk about how great she is for an hour and a half?”
But once the story of Lederer on this particular night in 1975 becomes clear, Bell and director Patrick Brafford pull us in with the same sort of indefinable voodoo that kept readers locked into “Ask Ann Landers” for 56 years.
Do we get wrapped up in advice columns because it feels like sanctioned snooping, or because we can relate to so many of the dilemmas? Bell’s portrayal of a highly principled, slightly cocky but deeply empathetic Eppie shows us that it’s a little bit of both.
In the show, Eppie delights in how seemingly trivial matters – like which direction toilet paper should hang – had her readers foaming at the mouths and writing in by the thousands on the incredibly divisive issue. But this was the genius of Ann Landers under Eppie Lederer’s stewardship. People want an option D – a way to navigate all the big and small stuff from a safe distance, from toilet paper to your partner wanting you to wear a motorcycle helmet to bed, or more profound challenges on marriage, family and existential crises.
The events of the play present Eppie as the one in crisis. After years of doling out advice, making a living as The Lady With All the Answers, she’s depicted by Bell and Brafford as a character that is at once a sharp, self-assured wit who has very suddenly been knocked sideways by life. She’s leaning on her dear readers – in this case, the theatrical audience – to help her talk it through to the other side.
Ultimately, this was and is the enduring appeal, that indefinable voodoo, of Ann Landers and all that came after: She let us know we’re not alone.
“The Lady With All the Answers” continues through September 19. Performances are September 16 through 18 at 8 p.m. and September 19 at 2 p.m. at Gulfport Community Players’ Back Door Theater, 1619 49th St. S.
More at gulfportcommunityplayers.org.