An Ann Landers column had heart, humor and a little sex. That’s what I wanted my play about her to be.
Ann Landers at her peak had over 70 million readers. She informed and chronicled the rapidly changing society in the second half of the 20th century. Although I read her growing up (her column was always the hot part of The Pottstown Mercury), it was when the news broke of her divorce in 1975 that I realized how connected I felt to her. I was dealing with the shock of my parents divorce at the time. Mom and Dad? And now, Ann Landers? Was nothing sacred?
When I read in 2002 that Ann Landers had died, I couldn’t help thinking what a good subject she would be for a one-actor play. She was a theatrical character, self-invented, and entertaining. So I started researching. I found a lot of touching incidents and funny stuff, but it was reading about her 1967 trip to Vietnam that made me want to write the play. She tirelessly visited the field hospitals for ten days, speaking with every patient, and getting a name and phone number of a loved one she could call for them when she got back home. She made over 2,500 calls – but never publicized her generosity. The story would become one of the emotional highlights of the play.
It took a year for me to connect with Ann Landers’s daughter Margo Howard. She peppered me with rapid-fire questions, “Why Mother? How do you see the play? You won’t make it a musical, will you? Are you going to include the feud (with twin sister Dear Abby)? Are you gay, straight? Democrat, Republican? What else have you written?” Barely keeping pace, I answered every question honestly. Against the advice of her lawyer and friends, Margo took a chance on me, and I wrote the play.
When The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego produced the premiere, they suggested Tom Moore as director. He was incisive and wise as we shaped draft after draft, and astutely cast Broadway star Randy Graff. Margo attended the opening, and couldn’t fight tears as the curtain fell.
A Chicago production at Northlight Theatre, directed by BJ Jones with Judith Ivey as Ann Landers, transferred off-Broadway to the Cherry Lane Theatre. Judy was deservedly nominated for Lortel and Drama Desk Awards, the play received a Lortel nomination.
Every theatre has its mature leading lady, their Amanda Wingfield, Maria Callas, Mary Tyrone, Queen Gertrude. I knew this play would be a perfect vehicle for those ladies and it has – hundreds of productions, and it’s still being performed. Those actors always fall in love with Ann Landers, as do audiences, as did I.