Sunday, March 21, 2021

"The Lady with All the Answers" streaming from Lakeshore Players Theatre

Recently recorded on stage at the beautiful new Hanifl Performing Arts Center in White Bear Lake, the one-woman show about advice columnist Ann Landers, The Lady with All the Answers, is now streaming from Lakeshore Players Theatre. #TCTheater favorite Shanan Custer inhabits the woman behind the famous words, whose real name was Eppie Lederer, as she navigates a challenging time in her life and the wish to share honestly with her readers. With full set, costumes, lighting, and even a bit of crowd laughter from the crew, filmed from several different camera angles, it really feels like an engaging and entertaining theater performance that we just happen to be watching from home.

The play takes place in 1975, after Eppie has been writing her nationally syndicated and extremely popular advice column for 20 years. She's in the midst of sorting through letters for a book, and writing a very special column in which she needs to share something difficult with her readers. She considers her readers to be her friends, and they need to hear this news from her first. As she's struggling to put words on paper (via a typewriter, natch), she reminisces about her life. She talks about her marriage and daughter, her close but often contentious relationship with her twin sister Popo (aka Dear Abby), her friendship with Hubert Humphrey and other politicians, and how she came to be Ann Landers. Over the 20 years of "Ask Ann Landers" (which she continued to write until her death in 2002), Eppie published columns about topics ranging from how to hang the toilet paper roll to sex to suicide. A source of help for people who had nowhere else to turn, she claimed she answered every letter that had a return address.

Written as one long monologue delivered directly to the audience, it's a shame that this play doesn't have a live audience. Shanan beautifully embodies the humanity, humor, and spirit of Eppie, and would've had a live audience in the palm of her hand. There are several moments in the play in which Eppie asks the audience for a show of hands about this or that, which would've been such fun to experience in person. But Shanan's performance, the direction by Sandra Struthers, and the filming (videography and editing by Matthew Ayers and Dena Denny), are engaging enough to captivate an audience even through a TV screen, and the laughter from the crew who were there for the taping helps fill the silences where audience response should be. 

Shanan Custer as Eppie (photo by Molly Weibel)
The charming on-stage set represents Eppie's 1970s office, complete with desk, couch, record player, and piles of letters. For the first act she's in a simple but elegant (by 70s standards) business suit, with a five-minute intermission (otherwise unnecessary) allowing for a costume change into a gorgeous silk pajama/robe set. And of course, that famous Ann Landers hair (wig by Tony Paul) completes the transformation.

Over the last year #TCTheater companies have experimented with various kinds of virtual theater. Some are more of a film/theater hybrid, some use lots of technical elements to create something new. This production is filmed in a more traditional theater style, with all of the elements coming together to successfully translate it into the virtual viewing space.

The Lady with All the Answers streams at 7pm Tuesday through Saturday, closing with a 2pm matinee on the 28th. Visit the Lakeshore Players website for more details and to purchase a streaming pass.