As the first act of The Lady With All the Answers bubbles to a close at Pittsburgh Public Theater, you may think that you're in for an evening of fluff. Helena Ruoti as Eppie Lederer, for many years the writer of the Ann Landers newspaper advice column, has been taking everyone into her perky confidence. She's been talking about readers' letters, asking for raised-hands votes about issues on which her in-print audience heavily weighed in. But then the lady, who often offered expert-advised wisdom about marriage, marveling at her own happy union, feels she must reveal that she and her husband have just split.
We're not in for a gossipy sob story. It turns out that playwright David Rambo has actually crafted an admiring portrait of someone many of us may not have taken seriously, even though millions of readers did. We learn that Eppie publicly supported a variety of controversial liberal stands, including being pro-choice, against the Vietnam War and compassionate about homosexuality. Gradually, we get reasons to admire what she stood for, and how her public deeds underscored her social conscience. She doesn't preach; Rambo only has her try to explain what she has done and, thereby, who she is. She also makes clear that she wants to deal with a new and complex question: her own divorce.
As a theatrical bond with her, The Lady remains short on philosophy and introspection but potentially deep on emotional connection. After all, Eppie onstage remains alone in a vast and luxuriously appointed apartment and you can understand -- even though we, like her readers, don't really know her well -- that she sees the public as an enormous, warming source of friendship. Here, Rambo inventively takes the idea of one-person-alone to mean something itself. This becomes noticeably poignant when Eppie sits silently at her desk while a recording of Pittsburgh's own Errol Garner playing "Misty" slowly suffuses the deepening night.
Credit director Ted Pappas for pointing up that moment, and actress Ruoti for imbuing it with wistful simplicity. Credit them both, too, for never making Eppie pushy or self-satisfied. While she comes across as neither deeply conflicted nor profoundly intellectual, you get a clear sense of who she might have been. The result remains a significant portrait of someone important to our culture, who looks worth understanding. And who, like the artists bringing her to life, deserves our applause.
The Lady With All the Answers continues through Dec. 14. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 www.ppt.org