Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is full of the wit and wisdom of the woman herself; written by journalist/sister duo Allison and Margaret Engel, the play allows Erma (Barbara Chisholm) to tell her own story, leading the audience through her years as a mother and housewife who lampooned life in the suburbs in her weekly (then tri weekly, then heavily syndicated) newspaper column called “ At Wit’s End.”
The play follows Bombeck from her troubled childhood, where she found comfort in the words of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, through her rise to fame as a journalist and public figure. The text of the play pulls heavily from these columns and from Bombeck’s many books; the real Erma Bombeck was famous for her pithy, one line observations and onstage Erma asks the audience “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?” and implores us to live life to it’s fullest by remembering “all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
Allison and Margaret Engel’s script is beautifully structured; in the difficult confines of a one-woman show, the play allows us to see Erma interact with her children (through voice-over,) introduce us to her husband Bill, and, in an incredibly powerful scene, sit in a library and listen while renowned feminist Betty Friedan criticizes housewife humor columnists.
Barbara Chisholm handles the difficult task of embodying Bombeck beautifully. Bombeck was known for her humor filled, if somewhat callous, attitude to her children and family on the page, and Chisholm delivers that humor along with a heavy dose of real emotion. The audience gets the sense, through both the work of the script and of Barbara Chisholm, that despite all of the jokes at their expense, Erma Bombeck loved her children and her husband in a very deep, very real way.
The design elements of the show work wonders to transport the audience to 1950’s, middle class suburbia. The set, by Daniel Conway, recreates the perfect late 1950’s modern home, complete with a working a working mint green vacuum cleaner. Costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy was faced with difficult task of taking a character who never leaves the stage from the 1950s to the 1980s, but by adding an apron, or rolling down her sleeves the actress subtly changes the look of her single costume throughout the show.
ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT’S END
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
October 9 – November 8
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
1 hour, no intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $55 – $90
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is a loving tribute to the journalist who was lauded for opening up the secret world of the mother and housewife, to the public figure who used her budding fame to support the Equal Rights Amendment, and to the women who loved her family. The play is full of Bombeck’s own words and humor and is written for an audience who already know and love her work. The play speaks to those who looks back fondly on the well-worn newspaper clippings that hung from many suburban refrigerator’s from the 1960s to the 1980s, that were almost certainly put there by a mother who felt “ At Wit’s End.”
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel . Directed by David Esbjornson. Featuring Barbara Chisholm. Set Design: Daniel Conway. Lighting Design: Rob Denton. Sound Design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Costume Design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy. Wig Design: Charles G. Lapointe. Stage Manager: Marne Anderson. Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Danielle Albert. Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clarke. Produced by Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater . Reviewed by Jessica Pearson.