SAN DIEGO — Americans apparently have trouble figuring out how to install rolls of toilet paper properly. The late Ann Landers, columnist and societal sage for more than 40 years, once received 15,000 letters on that very topic.
Between her first column in 1955 and her death in 2002, Ms. Landers helped the country through countless such household crises - oh, and more trivial ones, like the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. She dispensed her weekly wisdom in thousands of US newspapers, acting as a mirror that reflected contemporary life during some of the nation's most trying times.
So for David Rambo, a writer on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the country's top-rated TV show, bringing Landers's life to the stage was to tell the story of modern America.
"I was just astonished at the stuff she would take on," Mr. Rambo remembers, recalling his introduction to the column as a youth in rural Spring City, Penn. "I loved her voice ... her point of view, her openness to humanity in all of its gratifying and frustrating variations. She just understood that it's a great big quilt, and all the patches are not alike."
Titled "The Lady With All the Answers," the play features actress Randy Graff as the columnist in a one-woman show that brings in actual readers' letters, and Landers's spunky answers, to offer a playful and poignant take on love, death, and a lot in between.
Far from sitting at home answering letters in her slippers, Ann Landers - née Esther "Eppie" Lederer - was a politically connected, active participant in the social evolution taking place around her. Through her column, Lederer influenced Congress; she toured Vietnam in 1968, visiting sick soldiers and calling their loved ones personally when she returned home; and behind the scenes, she urged President Johnson to get out of the war.
Though Ms. Graff is the only person on the stage in this new play, Rambo says the piece is not a monologue, but a dialogue, just like Landers's columns. He makes use of phone conversations, audience interactions, and readers' letters to maintain a running conversation.
Ann Landers's column was born the same year that Rambo was, and his parents divorced in 1975, the same year that Ann Landers ran a momentous column announcing her own painful divorce - which serves as a focal point for the play.
By that time, Rambo had left Pennsylvania to try writing and acting in New York. In 1980 Rambo moved to Los Angeles to try to break into television. After acting in an unsuccessful pilot with Crispin Glover and Nicholas Cage, an illness 10 years ago motivated Rambo to take writing seriously.
These days, Rambo is visibly thrilled to be working at the "murder factory," as he refers to "CSI," and getting his plays staged.
He says he worried at first that times had changed too much for audiences to be able to go back to 1975 and spend a couple of hours with Ann Landers, alone in her Chicago apartment.
But the play works because, while cultural values change, the feelings that surround love, marriage, death, parenting - topics from the great dramas of domesticity, from Chekhov and Ibsen to Mamet and Pinter - remain the same.
The play ends on a note of silence that is awkward, painful, and powerful, as Eppie gets on the phone with her daughter and reads to her the emotional column announcing her divorce, then awaits her daughter's answer. It never comes.
The silence that follows instead allows the audience to contemplate their own response as the lights fade on Eppie's life.
"It's a real theatrical moment of communion, which I love," says Rambo.