Often imitated but never equaled, Eppie Lederer’s Ann Landers graced America’s breakfast tables for almost a half century (1955-2002) with Midwestern folk wisdom and amusingly salty advice, along the way guiding her nervous readers through the treacherous bumps of societal and sexual revolution. Anyone who can’t enjoy a couple of hours in her company, in the form of Mimi Kennedy’s winning impersonation in David Rambo’s “The Lady With All the Answers,” must have — to use one of her catchphrases — a geranium in his cranium.
Puttering around Gary Wissmann’s elegant study, appointed with memorabilia as a constant reminder of family values, she’ll do anything — take phone calls, exercise, pore over old columns — to keep from working on the “the most difficult column I’ve ever tried to put together”: the June 1975 revelation of her 35-year marriage’s demise. (Her 30th anniversary tribute to hubby Jules, quoted here at length, is particularly galling for her on this night.)
Biggest work distraction, as it happens, is the audience as surrogates for her readership. A Landers column was as much dialogue as personal pulpit, with the lady with the answers also posing the right questions to generate unprecedented response (1 million letters in support of cancer research; 15,000 opining on the proper hanging of toilet tissue).
So Kennedy’s sprightly breaking of the fourth wall to offer confidences, and even to poll us on the state of contemporary marriage, feels logical and utterly right in the thesp’s confident hands. At first, she shares her roots, passions (chocolate) and pet peeves (competing lovelorn columnist twin “Dear Abby”), only moving into the political and deeply personal arenas after an intermission bubble bath.
A dead ringer for the columnist, in profile at least, Kennedy transcends the stiff bouffant hairdo and thick “Fargo” accent to fully embody the lady’s style and character. Never pretending to be an expert on everything — she had access to Nobel Prize winners and presidents for that — Kennedy’s Landers exudes strength gained from decades of learning through listening.
Her candor in charting her sea changes on such topics as abortion, the Vietnam War and homosexuality is particularly touching, and reflective of how the nation changed over the same period.
Neither Landers’ character nor biography lends itself to maudlin confessions; each time a breakdown threatens, Kennedy impatiently waves it away. The source of show’s heart comes — where else? — from her readers, as when she describes her service in war-zone hospitals (never discussed in print), chatting with the servicemen who remember her fondly and prompting 25,000 post-visit calls to loved ones back home.
There are pangs, too, in the odd letter: a plea for deterrence from suicide by a gay teen; a wife’s enthusiastic postcard in response to Landers’ question “Would you marry your spouse again if you had it to do over?,” accompanied by the husband’s scrawled coda: “She didn’t ask me. I vote no.” It’s all irresistible stuff to anyone who ever read and was struck by a Landers column.
Such airy, seamless entertainment seems to have come together naturally rather than been directed. All the more credit to helmer Brendon Fox, then, for his flawless pacing and integration of lights and sound.