Janet Shea, an actor and teacher who retired last year from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts after 21 years, often gave her students the following advice: “Stay humble; stay connected; be nice to everybody, and you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”
New Orleans theatergoers are fortunate that Shea ended up here treading the boards in more than 165 productions.
She’s received the Storer Boone Lifetime Achievement Award for her six decades on stage, she’s a five-time Big Easy award winner and she’s appeared in films with such actors as Paul Newman, Kathy Bates and Elvis Presley.
“It’s been a blast working with him,” Shea said. “People know him as fun and funny but he has a serious side, too. He always does his homework, and he knows exactly what he wants. He’s a great director and a very kind soul.”
The play, written by David Rambo, looks at the life of Esther “Eppie” Pauline Friedman Lederer, aka Ann Landers. At her peak, she had more than 70 million readers, and for years, she informed and chronicled post-war Americans with her humorous and down-to-earth column, “Ask Ann Landers.”
When playwright Rambo learned of Landers’ death in 2002, he couldn’t help thinking what a good subject she would be for a one-woman play.
“She was a theatrical character, self-invented, and entertaining,” he says on his website. “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.”
Rambo pieced together many of Ann Landers’ columns to create a touching portrait of a woman who answered countless letters from such people as struggling single moms, troubled teens, broken-heartened divorcees and a multitude of others in need of her straightforward advice.
She tackled complex issues of the day, topics other advice columnists shied away from such as abortion, female sexual satisfaction, politics and homosexuality.
She also wrote about nude housekeeping, sex in a motorcycle helmet and the proper way to hang toilet paper.
The play takes place in Ann’s penthouse and opens as she is staring at her IBM Selectric. She’s pulling an all-nighter because she needs to write the biggest column of her career.
As she’s trying to find the words to begin a column about her divorce from her husband Jules, she starts talking to the audience, sharing her favorite letters, telling stories and giving a behind-the-scenes look into her own story.
“The Lady With All the Answers” is an homage to a hardworking lady who acknowledges that she doesn’t always have all the answers.
“I have a friend who knew her,” Shea said. “He says her appearance was perfect. Every hair was always in place in her big bouffant hairdo, her nails were perfectly manicured and she was always stylishly dressed.
“But he said she also had a great sense of humor and warmth. I love having the opportunity to explore how everybody has problems, but we just need to look at them with different prisms.”
Just like Landers, who had a successful career lasting decades, Shea knows that she will continue to act as long as she possibly can.
“I keep saying I am going to quit but something like this play always comes up,” she said. “Acting is my exercise. It keeps me physically and emotionally healthy.”