'The Lady With All the Answers'

This diverting showpiece has more on its mind than nostalgia for yesteryear.

Talk about your old-fashioned family values! As played with supreme generosity by Judith Ivey in David Rambo’s solo play, “The Lady With All the Answers,” Eppie Lederer lived and swore by the kind and caring (and occasionally provocative) personal advice she dished out for almost 50 years in the syndicated newspaper column she wrote as Ann Landers. But this diverting showpiece has more on its mind than nostalgia for yesteryear, capturing the genial proto-Oprah at a crucible moment when her career as a professional know-it-all becomes unexpectedly imperiled by the meltdown of her own 35-year marriage.

Mothers, grandmothers and doting aunts might need to prep their daughters on the quaint Midwestern values Eppie confidently embodied when she assumed her Ann Landers persona in 1955. For that matter, even the enlightened sensibility she displays on the dark Walpurgisnacht in 1975 when the play is set might seem like ancient history.

Reliable visual assistance in identifying the bygone ’70s is offered by the designers. The era’s tasteful style in home decorating is on graceful display in Neil Patel’s set for  the “gracious lady” home office on the Gold Coast of Chicago, where Eppie manages her voluminous mail and writes the daily column that in its heyday reached 90 million readers in more than 1,250 newspapers.

Those huge canvas bags under the desk are filled with pieces of paper known in pre-Internet days as “mail.” And that monstrous piece of humming machinery on the faux-French Provincial desk is what was known as a “typewriter.” A top-of-the-line IBM Selectric, if appearances do not deceive.

The queen bee who occupies this handsomely appointed hive is wearing a raspberry colored Chanel-like suit with jewelry accents, including chunky clip earrings that have to be removed for the ear to make contact with a bulky apparatus called a “telephone receiver.” And that amazing assemblage of lacquered hair atop Eppie’s head is one of Paul Huntley’s most inspired wig creations.

For all the classy airs she puts on, Eppie is a down-to-earth lady who hails from the Iowa prairies and has never lost touch with her roots. In Ivey’s unsparingly nasal delivery, she has also not lost touch with her Midwestern accent. Exuding optimism and good cheer (and flashing Ivey’s irresistible grin), she maintains her immensely likable character, even as she tackles such fraught and painful issues as broken marriages, teen pregnancy, abortion, venereal disease, sexual bondage, homosexuality — and the proper way to hang the toilet paper roll.

Under BJ Jones’ shapely direction, there’s an underlying order to all the anecdotal material, which covers everything from Eppie’s singular work habits (she found inspiration while soaking in a bubble bath) to the political activism that took her to Vietnam, where she spoke with 2,500 soldiers (and made 2,500 personal phone calls to their loved ones when she got home).

For all her winking and twinkling manner — and Ivey could give a master class in winking and twinkling — Eppie has something heavy on her mind. It’s the column she is trying to write to her millions of faithful readers, explaining that she is divorcing her beloved husband, Budget Rent-a-Car mogul Jules Lederer, after learning he’s been conducting a three-year affair with a woman younger than their daughter.

Whatever you think about her politics or her earnest efforts to get with the times (“I had no idea so many of you get your kicks by tying each other up”), this is one nice lady, and it’s impossible not to feel for her as she struggles to keep her professional integrity, her personal dignity and her dedication to a moral code that, alas, belongs to a bygone era.

The Lady With All the Answers

Cherry Lane Theater; 179 seats; $51 top

Production

A Cherry Lane Theater presentation of a play in two acts by David Rambo. Directed by BJ Jones.

Creative

Set, Neil Patel; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Nicole Pearce; sound, Kevin O'Donnell; wig, Paul Huntley; production stage manager, Paige van den Burg. Opened, reviewed Oct. 14, 2009.  Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Eppie Lederer ... Judith Ivey

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