By Joe Jennison
Amana - I spent a very intimate evening with Ann Landers last night. She invited an entire group of us into the study of her Chicago condominium to tell us about her life, her work, her marriage and her family. And throughout the course of the evening, she also read to us from her columns and her letters, and, at one point, she became so moved by her reminiscences that she even broke down… and, from my seat, I felt the need to reach out to her and hold her hand or give her a hug – that is how convinced I was that I was actually spending time with her.
A one-woman show written by David Rambo and produced by The Iowa Theatre Artists Company, The Lady With All The Answers is a stylish and simple story featuring actress Meg Merckens as columnist Ann Landers. Merckens as Landers greets the audience as if they are guests in her home, and proceeds to share with them stories of her life and work. Merckens seems very comfortable with this style of storytelling, and actually reaches out to her audience several times, asking questions and taking polls – at one point double-checking with her audience on the correct spelling of “referring.” And later, she asks “Let’s take a poll, shall we? How many of you were virgins when you married?”
The character as written spends the entire evening working on a column and a book, a retrospective of her favorite letters over the years. She goes through files, pulls out letters from her column and creates two piles – this one goes in the book, this one does not. And then the column – yes, her column due tonight -- has to do with the disclosure to her readers that her 35-year marriage to Jules Lederer, owner of Budget Rent-a-Car, is over.
The moment where she actually discloses this personal truth to her readers is when, as she says, it all becomes real. It is at that moment that the actress very quietly sits and breaks down. Merckens makes this moment so very real and controlled that I almost felt embarrassed for the character. It was very clear that at this very public moment, Ann Landers was not about to lose her composure in front of this room-full of strangers. And so, at this moment, the two of them, actress and character, rather than pulling out the stops and bawling in front of us, instead very subtly and professionally holds back, pulls herself together, and moves on.
Throughout the course of this one hour, 45-minute intimate exchange, we learn some wonderful stories about her amazing life. About how she started her column quite by accident after the sudden death of the original writer. And about how her identical twin (and 17-minute younger) sister, aka Dear Abby, started an identical twin column just six months later without mentioning one word to her before it appeared. She tells us about the walls she broke down, about being one of the first columnists to put the word “homosexual” in print, about how she was one of the first to write about sex, and about how it was her and her reader’s advocacy that was responsible for the largest medical appropriations bill in U.S. history.
I also learned that Ann Landers personally answered up to 900 letters a day, and at one point she was read by more than 60 million people. She went to Viet Nam during the war and spoke to numerous wounded soldiers and when she returned made 2,500 calls to friends and family members of the wounded just to let them know that their loved ones were OK.
I loved Merckens’ portrayal of this multi-dimensional public figure. Merckens also is responsible for the very recognizable lisp as well as the Costume Design. Merckens is certainly supported by Wig Stylist Tammy Frame who creates that trademark hair and Set Designer Thomas P. Johnson who recreates a lavish condominium. Director Rachael Lindhart keeps the piece moving along quickly and The Iowa Theatre Artists Company itself adds to the charm by creating a welcoming theater and performance space that allows patrons to get to know other theater-lovers as the play progresses.
Yes, I felt very much like an invited guest into Ann Landers’ home at this production. And I was almost disappointed to have to leave after our brief visit. I said earlier in this review that I “felt the need to reach out to her and hold her hand or give her a hug,” and that is exactly what I did as I exited the small space – that is how convinced I was that I was actually spending time with an American icon.
The Lady With All The Answers will be performed Fridays at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. through June 26. Tickets are $20 and are available through (319) 622-3222. Find out more at www.iowatheatreartists.org