ERMA BOMBECK: At Wit’s End
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069
Performances: March 2-April 15, 2018; Acts of Faith post-show discussion Sunday, March 18 UPDATE: This show has been extended through April 29! 03/26/2018
Ticket Prices: $42
Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org
Writers Allison Engel and Margaret Engel pulled much of their material for their one-woman play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, directly from Bombeck’s own words. The syndicated columnist and best-selling author who was active from the 1960s through the 1990s was known for her often self-deprecating and invariably witty assessments of her own life as a suburban housewife.
Catherine Shaffner steps easily into the role, so much so that one nearly forgets she is acting. Bombeckian one-liners like “never go to a doctor whose office plants have died” roll off her tongue with ease. Occasionally, the humor becomes pure poetry as when Shaffner relates Bombeck’s reminiscence on pregnancy: “the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.”
Along this one-hour journey, we learn that Bombeck started out making a mere $3 per column, but at her peak her work was syndicated in 900 newspapers throughout the US. One of her 3 children described her job as a “syndicated communist.” Bombeck also published 15 best-selling books which provided her with the celebrity and the currency to travel around the country with Betty Friedan as a champion of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). The woman who once characterized feminists as “roller derby dropouts” became an ardent supporter of women’s rights and a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Women. Much to her disappointment, the amendment failed three votes short of the 38 needed for ratification.
The period from the 1960s to the 1990s was a significant time for women who were seeking to establish a balance between family and career and that is illustrated in some humorous and subtle ways in the play. Most strikingly, see Shaffner/Bombeck locked away in her bedroom, perched on the edge of her bed, using an ironing board for a desk, banging away on a portable manual typewriter, as her children slip notes under the door asking for money to go to McDonald’s. (After digging around in the cushions of a chair, Shaffner/Bombeck slides the pile of coins under the door in response.)
Marcia Miller Hailey has dressed Shaffner in black slacks, a print blouse, and flats. She may be a nationally known author and feminist supporter, but she looks like a car pool mom. John Moon directed Shaffner – a job that I am sure was made all the easier because of Shaffner’s laidback expertise and natural wit. Her pacing and timing were perfection – never rushed, never hurried, but rather intimate and inviting. Several times the corded push-button phone on Bombeck’s bedside table rang and she informed her husband, Bill, that she had people over – meaning us, her audience. The size of the theater, with seats on three sides of the stage, reinforces this sense of intimacy and inclusion.
One thing I found a little odd was Terrie Powers’ set. It depicts a modest suburban home, supposedly in a subdivision in Dayton, Ohio, with the usual elements such as a raised step at the front entrance with a bit of decorative railing, and sections of a sitting area, a nearly complete bedroom, and a dining area with neatly some appliances neatly ensconced on shelves. I understand that the bedroom was centerstage because it was Bombeck’s office, but I found the placement of the bedroom and the proportions of the partial rooms around it peculiar and distracting – and little homey touches like an apron, a laundry basket, a visibly cordless iron, or a vacuum cleaner that seemed slightly out of sync with its recorded sound didn’t help matters.
Decorating dilemmas aside, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is a delightful hour of theater (sans intermission) that will send you home with the corners of your mouth upturned and your cheeks sore from smiling.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.