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Coyote StageWorks’ The Lady With All the Answers, a play by David Rambo, offers an inside look at the life of advice columnist Ann Landers.

Landers was part of American popular culture for decades, offering words of wisdom on everything from marital troubles to the proper method for hanging toilet paper. What many may not know is that the woman most of us know as Ann Landers was not the first Ann Landers.

Back in 1955, Landers (born Esther Pauline Friedman, or “Eppie”) was a comfortable wife and mother to one daughter. She began reading the original Ann Landers advice column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Not overly impressed, Landers called the paper, asking if she could help the columnist answer some of her mail. It turns out the original answer lady, a nurse named Ruth Crowley, had just died, and the paper was looking for a replacement. Eppie got the gig—which led to fame, fortune and the nickname “The Answer Lady.”

The multi-talented Gloria Loring stars as Landers, and she is terrific. Impeccably dressed and coiffed in a bouffant wig, Loring comes across as classy and elegant, yet down to earth, just as Landers herself was. She roams about her lovely Chicago apartment (the set is superb), alternately sharing letters from previous readers, answering new ones, and reminiscing about her life and career.

We learn that while shopping for bridal veils for a double-wedding with her twin sister Pauline (who later became Dear Abby), Landers fell for the salesman and later married him after breaking off her engagement. And many folks may not be aware of just how politically active Eppie was: An avid Democrat, she went to Washington, D.C., as a young wife and got to know Hubert Humphrey, Justice William O. Douglas and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When she later quoted them all in her columns, her editor worried the paper would be sued for fraud—until Landers assured him that these men were indeed her friends. Landers was vehemently against the Vietnam War, and frequently told Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. needed to get out of the conflict. He would look at her sadly and reply, “I know, Eppie, I know.” She visited hundreds of hospitals in Vietmam, and spent hours calling soldiers’ families with words of comfort and reassurance.

Though Ann Landers counseled the masses through marital discord—likely saving many marriages—she could not save her own. When, after 30-plus years of wedded bliss, her husband confessed to a three-year affair with a much-younger woman, Landers simply announced: “This marriage is over.” Her struggle to appropriately share this news with her readers in a column drives The Lady With All the Answers.

Loring is known as an actress on Days of Our Lives, as a singer on her No. 1 hit “Friends and Lovers” with Carl Anderson, as the author of several books including Coincidence Is God’s Way of Remaining Anonymous, and for her philanthropy in the field of biomedical research after her son was diagnosed with diabetes. Here, Loring effortlessly conveys Landers’ warmth and humor. Her interactions with the audience are quite entertaining, particularly her surveys on how to hang toilet paper and a discussion on teenage sexual experimentation.

Loring has a great stage presence and perfect diction. Carrying a one-person show is not easy, but she knocks it out of the park. She is particularly effective in moments of silence, letting the previous moment sink in before moving on to the next revelation. We feel her pain when discussing her divorce, yet she’s always dignified and in control.

Much credit also goes to director Don Amendolia, who elicits a spot-on performance from Loring and keeps the play moving along while maintaining a sense of intimacy.

If you’re someone who must have huge productions like Les Miserables, then The Lady With All the Answers may not be your cup of tea. But for those who love quiet, intimate, thought-provoking theater, it’s just the ticket.

The play allows us to really get to know Ms. Landers, a woman always spoke her mind. Now, one bit of advice from me: Go see Coyote Stageworks’ The Lady With All the Answers at the Annenberg Theater. It’s darn good.

Coyote StageWorks’ The Lady With All the Answers is performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 15; 2 p.m., Sunday, April 16; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 19; 2 p.m., Thursday, April 20; 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 21; 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 22; and 2 p.m., Sunday, April 23, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs 105 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.annenbergtheater.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

As a lovely female voice sings in the background, a professionally dressed woman walks to the front of the stage and begins a monologue.

She likes to believe that every story has a happy ending, she tells us. She wants to believe in “alternate reals.” As a child, she saw Greta Garbo’s film Camille several times, and always dreamed that, hidden in a vault somewhere in Hollywood, there’s a film reel with an ending in which Garbo doesn’t die of consumption.

As Dr. Martha Livingstone (Marsha Waterbury) talks, a woman in a nun’s habit, who we later learn is the Mother Superior (Laura Julian), approaches and interrupts. The two begin a discussion—and we soon find out what’s going on.

The details are horrific: Several months before, a young nun, Agnes (Britt Adams), was found unconscious in her room. She’d just given birth—and her child was found dead in a trash can, with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. Blood was everywhere.

The young nun is being charged with manslaughter, and she claims to have no recollection of the birth (nor, for that matter, the conception). It’s Dr. Livingstone’s job to evaluate Sister Agnes—often under the watchful eye of Mother Superior, Agnes’ staunch defender.

John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God is the second and final production in Coyote StageWorks’ current season. After the criminally underattended Friday-night show, founding artistic director Chuck Yates told a small group of people that he saw the play back in the early 1980s, when it was a Tony Award-winning Broadway production. (In 1985, it was made into a film starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly, which received decidedly mixed reviews.) It left a strong impression on him, he said—and he’s always wondered why it hasn’t received a significant revival.

After seeing Coyote StageWorks’ fantastic production, I understand what Yates is talking about. Agnes of God is a powerful, disturbing work about the power of faith, and the gray areas that often emerge when trying to determine “right” and “wrong.”

Scenic designer Josh Clabaugh’s set on the Annenberg Theater stage when the play starts is simple. It primarily consists of an office chair, a wooden chair, and a cigarette-laden ashtray on a stand. Off to the side is a see-through standing screen, and sheer white fabric hangs, curtain-like, from ceiling in several spots. However, that’s all the decoration this show needs: It’s all about the performances of the three women who perform in Agnes of God—and director Don Amendolia did a fantastic job of casting.

Britt Adams plays Agnes for much of the show as a one-note character. She’s naïve, untrusting and easily frightened, yet surprisingly sweet; she’s always singing. However, as Dr. Livingstone begins to earn Agnes’ trust and unravel all that’s happened to this 21-year-old, Adams begins to add layers to Agnes—especially in a shocking scene during which Dr. Livingstone finally gets Agnes to talk about what happened in her room on that fateful night. It’s a fine performance.

Martha Waterbury is excellent as Dr. Livingstone. We learn early on that Dr. Livingstone passionately dislikes nuns, because her sister became a nun and died at a young age due to a neglectful mother superior. It’s no surprise that she initially wants little to do with Agnes’ Mother Superior—but it is something of a surprise when she begins warming up to Agnes so quickly.

(An aside: While I’d never seen Agnes of God before, I saw the show with a friend who watched the early ’80s Broadway production. He mentioned that he was surprised at how quickly Waterbury’s Dr. Livingstone began showing her softer, more sympathetic side; he felt this performance choice made the character’s eventual emotional crisis less powerful than what was depicted in the Broadway version. So, take that for what it’s worth.)

However, it’s Laura Julian who deliver’s the show’s top performance. Her Mother Superior is fiercely protective of Agnes, calling her special—citing her amazing singing voice as proof—and an innocent. She is mistrustful of Dr. Livingstone, in part because she fears what the doctor will determine: If Agnes is sane, she’ll go to prison for manslaughter, and if she’s insane, she’ll go to an institution; Mother Superior believes Agnes will not survive in either case. While Mother Superior doesn’t trust Dr. Livingstone, she’s surprisingly understanding of her: These two strong women have a lot in common, including—later in the play—a love of Anges. Some of the play’s best moments come when Dr. Livingstone temporarily suspends her dislike of nuns (and, therefore, Mother Superior), and Mother Superior puts aside her mistrust of Dr. Livingstone, and the women find common ground—with even a shared laugh or two. Julian is masterful as holes begin to develop in Mother Superior’s story, and her emotions begin to crack just a little.

A warning: This show is not a feel-good piece at all. In fact, it is dark and disturbing. At the end, you’ll find yourself relating to Dr. Livingstone’s sentiments expressed at the beginning: You’ll wish the show had an alternate happy ending.

Alas, it does not. At least you’ll leave the theater knowing you’ve just seen a fantastically performed piece of theater.

Coyote StageWorks’ Agnes of God is performed at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 24; 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 29; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 30; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 1, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs about two hours with one 10-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit annenbergtheater.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coyote StageWorks, now back home at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, earned a richly deserved standing ovation from the opening-night audience at ART. This one-act comedy runs about 1 1/2 hours, and earns the highest marks in every aspect of the production: set, lighting, costumes, direction, sound and acting. It’s so great in every department that it leaves your mind free to explore its unusual and beautiful theme: friendship.

Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?

Before the play even begins, we can ponder the eternal question of life vs. art, because we know the three characters in the play, all best friends, are also friends off the stage. Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director of Coyote StageWorks, is joined by fellow actors Larry Raben and David Engel, both founding members and original board members of CSW. This gives their onstage friendship just a little extra frankness and intimacy: There are some things that are beyond acting.

Read their résumés in the program. It shows experience beyond talent—and they’ve done it all: Broadway, films, TV, screenwriting, directing, acting, singing and dancing, regional theater. Whew!

The script of ART comes from Yasmina Reza, creator of seven plays and six novels. She’s based in France, and her original French language has been translated by Christopher Hampton. They both deserve credit for the success of the writing, which is witty, snappily paced and hugely satisfying.

Though the play is set in modern-day Paris, director Don Amendolia has chosen to completely Americanize it. There’s not so much as a Gallic shrug or a French lilt to his interpretation, and never a Gauloise in sight. But the theme of friendship is universal, so it plays perfectly anywhere in the world. Amendolia’s fabulous blocking keeps the stage magnificently balanced at all times, making marvelous use of Josh Clabaugh’s delightful set, which uses obtuse angles and clean lines. The décor includes only two modernistic white leather chairs and a matching hassock, with a white section rug. Upstage are two display shelves which can be lit from behind or can look solid. The versatile set rises up like a little mountain range upstage, with a riser running by in front to create two levels. The extraordinary lighting, designed by Moira Wilke, blends with Amendolia’s inspired direction, best of all by highlighting the monologues in pools of light on a suddenly dark stage, breaking down the Fourth Wall when the actors speak directly to the audience. Huge kudos to the actors, and stage manager Diane David, for everyone flawlessly hitting their marks in the dark … gulp.

We must also applaud the fascinating pacing that the director has masterminded. The hills and valleys of intensity give such variety that both chaos and peaceful times are intensified by their contrast. It’s classic, and it’s lovely to watch such professionally guided timing, especially in moments of rapid-fire AK-47 dialogue.

We get to know the three characters quickly. Part of this is due to Bonnie Nipar’s beautifully thought-out costumes, which immediately tell us a lot about them. The overall comic energy of the play is hugely appealing—the actors start earning hearty laughs early, and it never stops.

It’s worth it to take a moment to analyze the quality of the comedy in ART. If you ask comedians, “What’s funny?” you’ll get a variety of answers. Here, it seems that the amusement comes from this play holding up a mirror to humankind in general, because we are never more ridiculous than when we’re stubbornly defending our righteous point of view. This comedy plays off the three different personalities—their opinions, vulnerabilities and vanities. (Watch them each eat an olive.)

It starts when Serge (Larry Raben) buys a painting. There aren’t many topics that divide people like modern art does, and with these three friends, their feelings about this painting are strong ones. Interestingly, this painting is completely white. (One of my art professors actually did this! Through the year of studying with him, we grew to understand and appreciate what he was doing, and he taught us to see art with different eyes. His white-on-white work looked different to us at the end of the year. However the characters in this play didn’t get to learn from my teacher, and so their opinions are … well, theirs.)

What the painting actually does is this: It touches off discussions—OK, arguments—that whip away the thin veneer of civility that covers the unexpressed hurts, misunderstandings and misinterpretations that can occur between people. Emotions, which have been suppressed in the name of friendship, suddenly bubble up to the surface. Because they now disagree, this opens up old wounds about the past, as well as some surprising thoughts and ideas about each other’s present situations. For example, Serge is divorced; Ivan (David Engel) has a significant other/life partner; Mark (Chuck Yates) has a fiancée busily planning their impending nuptials. Opinions about each other’s partners blurt forth, too, with tragicomic results. We see the ebb and flow of power in their relationships, with which everyone in the audience will identify.

The highlight of the play is a breathtaking monologue by Engel that caused an eruption of spontaneous and gleeful applause from the entire audience. However, all three actors are wonderfully cast. Their perfect diction is so rare nowadays (alas) as to demand a mention. You’ll be treated to some delightfully inspired gestures. They are each well-schooled and creative, and every one of their theatrical choices is awesome. Their highly sharpened skills allow the audience to relax into the story of the play, because Raben, Engel and Yates are so very convincing.

There is absolutely nothing to criticize in this work—and that’s the stuff that earns spontaneous joyous standing ovations.

ART, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Wednesday; 2 p.m., Thursday; 7:30 p.m., Friday; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 3, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit annenbergtheater.org.

Published in Theater and Dance