Flip your wig: Ann Landers comes alive at History Theatre

Cathleen Fuller as Ann Landers
Courtesy of Scott Pakudaitis
Cathleen Fuller plays Ann Landers in “The Lady with All the Answers.”

Playwright David Rambo has a simple piece of advice for actors taking on the role of Ann Landers in his one-woman show, “The Lady with All the Answers.”

Don’t be worried about imitating the famous advice columnist. Instead, it’s important to find the inner “Ann” — and to use an essential prop.

“The wig does half the work,” Rambo says.

St. Paul’s History Theatre will present the work by the playwright, whose credits also include original works, adaptations and several episodes of the original “CSI” show.

“The Lady with All the Answers” is, among other things, a love letter to the woman, whose real name was Eppie Lederer, who answered questions big and small for decades from her daily newspaper column. Rambo centers the show on a key event in the columnist’s life — the breakup of her marriage.

While that serves as the engine of the show, Rambo centers it on Landers’ own copious words. In his research, Rambo figures he read nearly all of the advice columns she wrote in her career.

In a way, actor Cathleen Fuller has prepared for this role all her life.

“I started reading Ann Landers at about age 12,” the Chicago native says. “I read it religiously up until she died. I loved the column and I learned a lot from her. She was witty, wise, and her common sense approach to life resonated with me.”

Going to the source
Rambo worked with Lederer’s family to get rights to the original columns. “If I wouldn’t have had that, I wouldn’t have done the show,” he says.

Through those columns — and additional research into Lederer’s life — Rambo found a woman far more complex than the warm, somewhat prim view you might expect. One event illustrates her dedication and views perfectly for the playwright. Though opposed to the war in Vietnam, Lederer traveled to the war zone and met with hundreds of troops. While she wrote about the experience, there was one part she left out. When Lederer got back to the United States, she contacted the families of all of the troops she’d met and passed along personal messages and reports on how they were doing so far from home.

Fuller used a variety of sources for research into the character, from written biographies to, as it happens, an episode of “Biography.”

“I read and watched,” she says of that research. “My performance is not an impression of her, but rather a representation. I’m trying to be true to the spirit of Ann Landers.”

Since the show is intended as an interactive evening between actor and audience — Fuller will even conduct Ann Landers-like polls, such as whether the toilet paper is hung with the edge of the paper “in” or “out” — it has provided an unusual challenge in rehearsal.

“The audience is the other character in the play, and I’m feeling pretty lonely now without that piece of the puzzle,” Fuller says. “For right now, I’m pretending that I’m playing to full houses.”

Rambo said “The Lady with All the Answers” allowed him to stretch his creative muscles in some new areas, including his first one-actor show. Meanwhile, he continues to work in television. He’s one of the producers on the original “CSI” and has a new episode scheduled to air May 1. (“It has the most unusual killings we’ve ever had,” he proudly states, which considering what “CSI” has done in the past, is quite a boast.)

And despite what you may think, the recent strike wasn’t a break for Rambo. “It was so stressful, I couldn’t get anything done,” he says. “There were days where I would just stare at a blank (computer) screen all day.”

What: “The Lady with All the Answers”
Where: The History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
When: April 5-27
Tickets: $20-$30
Phone: 651-292-4323
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