It is June 1975, and Eppie Lederer, who is better known to her 60 million newspaper readers as syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers, is living alone in a fourteen-room high-rise apartment on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. Her cozy fiefdom is festooned with royal maroon curtains befitting a queen. As a testament to her wisdom, miniature owls adorn the windowsill. An ornate mirror hangs on the wall. It might be called the Mirror of Smiling Faces, because throughout The Lady With All the Answers, a new offering from Max & Louie Productions at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), this mirror reflects the contented countenances of audience members who are clearly delighted to be sharing their evening with Ann.
Little more than an accumulation letters and anecdotes, The Lady With All the Answers is as disposable as last week's newspaper column. Author David Lambo flaunts many of the weaknesses of the one-person play: a dependence on phone conversations, purposeless chats with the audience. His script, which was compiled under the protective eye of Lederer's daughter Margo, is an authorized love letter to a woman whose very existence was dependent on mail. It is an exercise in simplicity that carefully avoids anything even remotely unflattering. By setting the action in 1975, the play need not reference the celebrated 1990s Ann Landers column that described Pope John Paul II as a Polack ("They're very anti-women") and labeled President John F. Kennedy's father anti-Semitic. Instead we get a roseate view of Saint Ann urging President Lyndon Johnson to pull American troops out of Vietnam and Ann the Innocent, ignorant of the meaning of the title of the 1972 pornographic movie Deep Throat.
But as easy as it is to chip away at the show analytically, it's also undeniable that a sense of bonhomie hung over the opening-night performance. Part of that warm rapport surely is attributable to Stellie Siteman's genial impersonation of Landers. With her pinched voice and self-deprecating manner, Siteman makes for a delightful companion. A sense of ease permeates the proceedings, directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga with stay-out-of-the-way understatement. There's nothing studied here; nothing forced. Siteman eases her way through the evening with the aplomb of a veteran fly fisherman who can reel in her catch while barely moving her wrist. There's not a thing wrong with Siteman's sly portrayal that couldn't be quickly solved by turning off COCA's air-conditioning unit.
"I'd rather have my column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win the Pulitzer Prize," Ann tells us. Although she never had to worry about the burden of winning a Pulitzer, perhaps this script evokes the populist nature of her celebrity more adroitly than might another play that delved more deeply into Landers' psyche. (How did she really feel about the competing "Dear Abby" column that was written by her twin sister? That's a play unto itself.) Fairest, perhaps, to suggest that although nothing consequential occurs in The Lady With All the Answers, something comforting does. How comforting? To answer that question, you need but gaze into the Mirror of Smiling Faces.
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