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Wednesday, May 18,2011

Woman of letters

Ann Landers has her say in Stormfield’s ’Answers’

by James Sanford

Dear Ann Landers: I dare you to print this.


I’ve been reading your column for years, and I never
dreamed I’d be writing to you. But here in Lansing, a local theater is
about to expose all your secrets. The play is called “The Lady With All
the Answers,” and the actress portraying you is Diane Dorsey, who comes
from Chicago (isn’t that your neck of the woods?). Now there’s something
that’ll twirl your turban!


By the way, according to what I’ve heard, Ann Landers
isn’t even your real name. Didn’t a little bird tell me that you were
actually born Esther Pauline Friedman, and that Ann Landers was already
an established columnist long before you came along?  Wake up and smell the coffee!


— Concerned in the Capital City 


Dear Concerned:


That little bird was no cuckoo. Yes, there was an Ann
Landers long before Esther Pauline Friedman, a.k.a. Eppie Lederer, came
along.


According to Kristine Thatcher, who’s directing the
Stormfield Theatre’s “Answers,” the woman whose advice and opinions
would eventually be heard worldwide only got her job by being in the
right place at the perfect time. 


Lederer, whom Thatcher describes as "a political mover and
shaker," applied to the Chicago Sun-Times, hoping to busy herself
helping sort mail for columnist Ann Landers.


“And she found out that the original Ann Landers — a woman named Ruth Crowley — had died recently,” Thatcher said.


“It was fate,” Dorsey concluded.


During a break in afternoon rehearsals
for the one-woman show, Thatcher and Dorsey eagerly shared their wealth
of Landers trivia. They’ve read “America’s Mom: The Life, Lessons and
Legacy of Ann Landers,” written by her former editor Rick Kogan and
they’ve studied the video they can find of her.


Thatcher has her own Landers connection. “I met her when I
was doing ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ in Chicago,”
she said. “She was part of the audience, and at the beginning of the
show we wandered around and handed out muffins to audience members. And I
got to hand a muffin to Ann Landers.”


Both star and director agree this was a
woman who broke taboos and started conversations about topics that many
only whispered about: cancer, homosexuality, trouble in the bedroom —
and, of course, the proper way to hang a toilet paper roll.


“She calls herself a Jewish Joan of Arc in the play,” Dorsey said.


Dorsey has a different term for her: “I’d say she was a good, solid broad with style,” said the actress, with a smile.


Written by David Rambo, “Answers” finds Landers in her
office one evening in 1975, just as she is about to type “the most
important column of my career.” It addresses a problem that perplexes
even Landers, who confesses, “The lady with all the answers doesn’t have
the answer to this one.”


Before she reveals her secret pain, Landers takes time to
reflect on what has brought her to this point. She shares letters and a
few secrets, including startling details of her trip to Vietnam in 1967
to visit American soldiers in the field hospitals. “This bouffant made
it through two weeks of the Vietnam War intact,” she proudly notes of
her celebrated coiffure.


Beneath that puffy hairdo was a sharp
mind and, at times, a sharp tongue, too. In a 1991 column, Landers was
challenged by “J.N. in Middlesex, Mass.,” who complained about “the
trash who crank out one kid after another, those freeloaders who sponge
off hard-working people like me.”


But J.N. took it a step too far when he wrote: “Say what
you like about Nazi Germany, Miss Landers, but those people had
character. They honored the work ethic and knew what it was to pull
themselves up by their bootstraps. Over the entrance to Nazi
concentration camps was the slogan in German that read, ‘Work makes you
free,’ a concept we have lost in America.” (And yes, he signed his
letter “I dare you to print this.”)


Landers was in a lather. “Just when I
think I’ve read everything, I get a letter from a self-righteous
jackass, spouting off about the work ethic and quoting, of all things, a
slogan over the entrance of a Nazi concentration camp. It’s useless to
try to talk sense to people like you so I won’t try.”


That fiery side doesn’t surprise Thatcher. “She could let certain people have it, and she does in the play.”


Yet she was also open-minded enough to reconsider some of
her positions and to correct herself when necessary. “She realized she
made mistakes,” Dorsey said. “And she did: She once called the Pope a
Pollock — in Chicago, which has the largest Polish community outside of
Warsaw! And she apologized for that.


“She was anti-abortion, but she changed her mind. She was
one of the first people to write about homosexuality. In one of her
columns she wrote, ‘Homosexuals are born, not made. I didn’t always
believe that.’ She grew from her conversations with her readers, and it
seems like the things she talked about in 1975 are still pertinent
today.”


However, there are still a few things that won’t be revealed in “Answers.”


“She did like to write from her bathtub; it was her
favorite place to work,” Dorsey said. But don’t expect to catch a
glimpse of Ann au naturel.


“It’s backstage,” Dorsey joked of the tub. “I soak before I come on.”


‘The Lady With All the Answers’
Stormfield Theatre,
201 Morgan Lane, Lansing
Through June 5
7 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 (“Pay What You Can” preview performance); 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
$18 Thursdays; $24 Fridays and Saturdays; $20 Sundays; seniors $2 off; $10 students with ID for all shows
Cash or check at the door one hour before showtime, or buy online at www.lansingarts.org


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