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Got Questions? She Had All the Answers.
Walnut Creek Patch
By Martha Ross

Center Repertory Company presents a show chronicling the life and work of one of America's most influential women: advice columnist Ann Landers.

Oprah may be shutting down operations, but do not despair: Walnut Creek’s Kerri Shawn is the next best thing.

The veteran actor, cast in the role of Ann Landers in Center REPertory’s The Lady With All the Answers, which opens Thursday, is warm, tough, tearful on demand, and so able to listen that an interview with a journalist almost turns into a counseling session.

Settling in at a conference table in the Lesher Center for the Arts. Shawn asks about family, work, and whether the light is hitting the laptop screen at a good angle—all the while nodding and beaming as if she’s heard it all, but would love nothing more than to hear it all again.

“I believe, as an artist, that every project that has come my way has come at the exact right time in my life,” Shawn says, when the conversation gets back on track.

A few years ago, Center REP Artistic Director Michael Butler handed Shawn the script for the play and said, “If we ever do it here, I want you to think about it.”

When Butler finally asked a year ago, Shawn said she’d need that much time to learn her lines. “I’m not quick at memorizing,” she admitted matter-of-factly.

Upon agreeing to take on the role, Shawn had a premonition that someone close to her would become sick, even die.

“A voice came into my head that said this is going to be a really tough year,” Shawn remembers. “But then I read it again, and without worrying about anything else, I just said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Shawn began reading books and calling relatives in the Midwest who had worked at newspapers that ran Landers’ column.

Actually, Ann Landers wasn’t a real person. That was the pen name of Eppie Lederer, a Chicago housewife and mom who answered an ad to be the new Ann Landers advice columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper after the creator of the column died. Eventually, the Ann Landers column would be syndicated in 1,200 newspapers. Lederer influenced entire generations with her no-nonsense advice and advocacy of controversial issusses, such as calling for the end of the Vietnam war and the use of animals in medical research and her support of abortion and gay rights. Her great rival in the advice column business was her twin Pauline, who penned the advice column Dear Abby. The rivalry wasn’t just professional. It became personal.

A key part of Shawn’s research into Landers/Lederer was to work with a dialect coach in order to capture her distinctive style of speaking.

“My coach, Kimberly Mohne-Hill, gave me interviews to listen to,” says Shawn. “I listened to the cadence of her speech.”

Suddenly, Shawn disappears and Ann Landers speaks from across the table.

“Her voice was clipped, like this” the actor says, biting off the end of each word. “And it all came out of the side of her mouth, like this,” she continues.

Sure enough, Shawn’s face has twisted slightly to one side. Her sentences are delivered with a factual punch.

Shawn started learning her lines in September, aiming for an average of two pages per week.

“Then my premonitions started to come true. First, my father-in-law became ill, then my mother’s cancer took a turn for the worse. When I got back to (the script), I couldn’t remember the 20 pages I had learned, so I had to go back and start over,” she says.

Four months later, she knew all the lines.

“At first, when all the sickness and death came into my life, I thought, why is this happening when I have this one-woman show?" she says. "All of a sudden, I realized she was giving me strength. The more I was connected to her, I felt stronger.

“Where I am with my mom, this journey, the play, is so much a part of helping me now," Shawn says. "I followed (Ann/Eppie's advice): Go to the experts. Go to the doctor. Find answers. That was her talking to me.”

Shawn’s favorite Landers column is actually a poem, Just For Today.

“I love how she says ‘Don’t look back, stay present, move forward,’” Shawn says, then quotes a favorite line: "'I would rather my column be on a thousand refrigerator doors than win the Pulitzer prize.'"

Shawn says she is simply hoping to be genuine. In the smaller, more intimate Knight Stage 3 theater at the Lesher, she will be able to see every face in the audience. Center REP's production is the second of its more intimate Off-Center productions this 2010-11 season.

“It’s scary and wonderful at the same time,” she says, shivering and wrapping her arms around herself.

The next moment, she’s flung her arms wide and is gazing up at the ceiling:

“Before I start, I just look up like this,” she pauses, holding the pose, ”and every time, she’s showing up. I really believe she’s here to channel through me. I’m a messenger; here to help people to reflect, to enjoy something deeper.”

And in the outline of this 50-something woman, in this actor, there is truth. Shawn has been happily married for 36 years to Lesher Center Managing Director Scott Denison, but is the daughter of divorce. She is the mother of three girls, one of whom, Jennifer Perry, has followed in her parents' performing-arts footsteps, and she is deeply involved with training young actors. She is mourning aging parents, but is filled with delight by her first grandchild. She hates the cruelty but loves the hate letters that Landers received in her lifetime. Some are included in the play to show the full impact of Landers' impact on American culture.

As Shawn says about Landers, “If you want to encompass her whole life, you’d have to do a mini series.”

To give Patch readers a taste of Landers, and because I wanted to include many of the witty, wonderful items I stumbled upon in researching this article, here is one of my favorites Landers quotes:

“One out of four people in this country is mentally unbalanced. Think of your three closest friends; if they seem OK, then you're the one.”


CURTAIN CALLS: Kerri Shawn brings the 'Answers'
Mercury News
By Sally Hogarty
Posted: 04/28/2011 12:00:00 AM PDT

If you have questions, the lady with the answers is coming to town. That lady, of course, is legendary advice columnist Ann Landers. portrayed by the equally wonderful Kerri Shawn.

David Rambo's The Lady with All The Answers runs April 28-May 15 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in downtown Walnut Creek. The one-woman show is part of Center Rep's "Off Center" series offered in the intimate Knight III Theatre.

Rambo sets the action in 1975 when, after dispensing advice to the lovelorn, she finds herself facing her own heartbreak. As she struggles to meet her next writing deadline, the audience learns much about the revered columnist and, possibly, about themselves.

"She was truly remarkable," Shawn says. "She genuinely cared about every letter that she received. She was human as well, and that's where I find the security and the gratitude for this opportunity to connect with her."

Shawn, who is being directed by her husband, Scott Denison, has been working on the script since last September and has read Landers' biography and her book "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee." But Shawn will not be doing an impersonation of Landers as she recreates the famous columnist.

"I almost wish I didn't have to wear a wig -- but her hairstyle was her trademark, and her nails, and her jewelry," she said.