In October of 1955, newspaper readers came across a letter from someone signed “Non-Eligible Bachelor,” bemoaning his unmarried fate. The advice columnist to whom the letter was addressed gave a sharp and firm reply. “You’re a big boy now,” Ann Landers reproved him. “Don’t let spite ruin your life.” For the next 47 years, until her death in 2002, Ann Landers dished out sympathy, advice and reprimands to self-obsessed correspondents in her weekly column, even after just about everyone knew that Ann Landers was actually Esther Friedman Lederer.
Even though “Ask Ann Landers” disappeared with Eppie Lederer’s death, she sprang to life four years later in David Rambo’s 2006 play The Lady With All The Answers, which comes to Hendersonville under the aegis of the Henderson County Arts Council this month. “A dear friend and theater colleague in New York City mentioned to me that I might find the piece to be ideal for the Arts Council’s chamber series,” says Francis Cullinan, who’s directing the play and who also sits on the Council’s board. “Certainly Ann Landers was an iconic figure of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and known to virtually everyone.”
The one-woman play is set in Eppie Lederer’s study over one evening as she sets out to write “the most difficult column of her career,” the one in which she revealed to her readers that she was divorcing her unfaithful husband.
The character is being brought to life by Jorja Ursin, well-known to regional theatergoers for her work in roles as diverse as Bootsie in the Charles Busch camp satire Die, Mommy, Die! and as the straight-laced Mother Pitt in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. She was approached for the Ann Landers role after Francis saw her in the Hendersonville Little Theater’s production last year of The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail. This will be her first solo performance. “If I think about it too much, I start to get overwhelmed by the idea that it’s just me and me alone up there for an hour-plus,” Ursin says.
The role is a tiring one, both physically and mentally, as Eppie speaks directly to the audience throughout the play, polls the audience at various points on a number of subjects and has to react to whatever their responses might be. And, along the way, she answers readers’ questions, carries on a spiky telephone conversation with her sister and rival, Pauline, who wrote the competing “Dear Abby” franchise, all the while circling around the column she doesn’t want to write about — the end of her 30-year marriage. “What is unusual for me is that I’m researching and portraying a real person who was extremely well-loved, so I’m feeling the weight of that responsibility, but also the challenge of it,” Ursin says. “Francis has a vast knowledge of the theater and of opera, and I feel sure he’ll bring a sophistication and attention to detail to this production.”
Cullinan moved to the Hendersonville area four years ago as the latest chapter in a career that’s included directing over a hundred productions for professional theaters and opera companies in the United States and Canada, including in Washington, DC, Boston and New York’s Perry Street Theater. Locally, he has directed at Asheville Little Theatre’s 35below, as well as various productions for the Henderson County Arts Council, including, An Enchanted Evening. But for Cullinan, too, this is a first one-person production. “It has a lot of advantages, like a simplified rehearsal schedule and process and the ability to focus on one character’s development over the course of the play,” he says. “The structure of the play is tight, fascinating and illuminating about its subject and the human condition.”
Ann Landers became a cultural icon as much for her missteps as for her more helpful advice. She annoyed the Vatican and an entire ethnic population in 1995 by commenting that Pope John Paul II was “anti-woman” because he was Polish; she caused an uproar in the gay community in the late 1970s by characterizing homosexuality as “a sickness” and a “dysfunction,” although she claimed to be a staunch and early proponent of equal civil rights for gays and wrote some of her most tender responses in her columns to young men and women struggling with their sexual orientation. She even affected wedding celebrations across the nation when she reported, incorrectly, that birds who ate the rice thrown at the just-married ran the risk of exploding as the grains swelled in their stomachs.
Despite the occasional and temporary falls from grace, Ann Landers never lost her following — at her peak, she boasted 90 million readers and appeared in more than 1,200 newspapers. By the 1990s, her office received 2,000 letters per day. Landers is so firmly a part of American cultural history that just the mention of her name will bring a familiar nod, as Ursin has discovered. “The consistent response has been a warm smile of recognition, followed by something like ‘oh, I loved her and read her every morning.’ She was more than a personality. She was a friend, and that’s not someone you forget.”