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'Lady with Answers' a loving tribute to Ann Landers

What kind of nut writes to a newspaper columnist for advice?

Every kind.

Millions of readers from around the world peppered Ann Landers, aka Eppie Friedman Lederer, with questions about their sex lives, problems with their children or in-laws, even the proper way to hang toilet paper over her 47-year career. She was America's confidante, a Midwestern housewife who made friends with the country's movers and shakers — even a Supreme Court justice — and used them to lend authority to her column.

"The Lady with All the Answers," which opened Friday at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and stars the talented Gretchen Rumbaugh, is a loving tribute to the columnist, who wrote frankly about such issues as abortion, homosexuality and the Vietnam War. Witty and direct, she coined the phrases "wake up and smell the coffee" and "20 lashes with a wet noodle."

Written by David Rambo and directed by Terri McMahon, the show recalls Landers' influence on the American psyche in almost reverential tones. Did Landers ever make a mistake? Mislead a reader? Recycle an old column without disclosing it? History tells us she did, but you won't find such misdeeds in this show.

It is 1975. We are in Landers' well-adorned living room, agonizing with her over a column she's trying to write — the most difficult since her career began Oct. 16, 1955, "a day that will live in intimacy." She must tell her readers that she and Jules, her husband of 36 years, are divorcing. For someone who railed against divorce, who was the champion for good marriages and honest relationships, telling her readers this news puts a chink in her persona as a moral guidepost.

It requires at least three chocolates and a two-hour bubble bath to write.

To distract herself from her odious task, Landers shares some of her favorite letters from readers with the audience. They are mostly funny, sometimes infuriating, often poignant. A woman wonders whether it's OK to clean house naked (thousands of readers said "yes"). A husband complains of his accordion-playing wife. A teenage boy who believes he's homosexual pleads for help.

Landers' popularity may have single-handedly led to passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971, when she wrote a column encouraging readers to support $100 million in cancer research by clipping the column and sending it to Washington, D.C. After a million readers complied, President Richard Nixon signed the bill.

Rumbaugh is dignified and forthright as Landers, peering at us with big blue eyes above multicolor-rimmed glasses as if she could see through our soul. She knows we're not satisfied in bed, really want to quit smoking, don't know how to tell a spouse something that's been bugging us for years.

Rumbaugh struggled a bit with her lines on opening night, not surprising for a one-woman show, especially when the script gives little emotional substance to hang onto. We don't get a deep sense, for example, of how acrimonious her relationship became with identical twin Popo after the latter began writing a similar advice column, "Dear Abby," just six months after Landers started hers.

Yes, news of Jules' infidelity is devastating, and Rumbaugh skillfully brings the audience to that place of hurt. But in the scene in which Landers describes her trip to Vietnam to visit wounded soldiers in field hospitals, it comes across more as a tribute to herself and her connections than a manifestation of her hatred over the senseless killing of American troops.

Landers is so together at all times, the highs aren't high enough and the lows aren't low enough to grab the audience's heart, toy with it, rip it apart and put it back together again — something you might hope for in a show about the woman who kept America's most private secrets.

But Landers' is an interesting story, and Rumbaugh no doubt will quickly settle into her role of the proper yet liberal, witty and insightful Landers, who was named in a 1978 World Almanac survey as the most influential woman in the United States.

''I'm free, the price is right and they can be anonymous,'' she once said of her correspondents. ''They feel they know me.''

Reach City Editor Cathy Noah at 776-4473, or e-mail cnoah@mailtribune.com.

'Lady with Answers' a loving tribute to Ann Landers