Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End

Arena Stage mounts another first in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck in Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End, directed by David Esbjornson, at Arena Stage.
Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck in Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, directed by David Esbjornson, at Arena Stage.
(© C. Stanley Photography)

The subject of the immensely entertaining world premiere at Arena Stage is Erma Bombeck, the Ohio wife and mother who made herself into a superstar as a best-selling author and syndicated journalist. Written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is a one-woman show that investigates the life of a woman who lived from 1927 to 1996, and worked as a reporter in the women's department of Ohio's Dayton Journal-Herald, became a stay-at-home mother of three children, and then was rehired by the Journal-Herald to write two weekly columns, which were put into syndication almost immediately, growing to reach more than 700 newspapers. Nine of Bombeck's 12 books appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list, including If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession.

Those book titles reveal not only the secret to Bombeck's success but also the basic appeal of this play: Bombeck had an uncanny ability to say what many others, particularly women, were thinking. Moreover, she invariably voiced those thoughts in a humorous way, a way that — even though they were thinking the same thing — very few people could put into words, much less extremely funny words.

At Wit's End begins when Bombeck was a housewife, musing on how hard it is to keep her children fed, their clothing clean, and her husband's shirts ironed in a timely manner. On a set designed to represent "the Bombeck home in suburban Dayton during the present, and various times from 1962-1996," Bombeck addresses her sons and daughter, her husband, her editor, and various people with whom she comes in contact. Those characters are represented by the recorded voices of five actors.

The play moves through Bombeck's early life, her decision to go back to work in 1965, and her manner of working: on an old typewriter placed on an ironing board, which served as a desk. It depicts her work routine, usually getting everything done before the children came home from school, not allowing herself to be distracted from her writing by children requesting money or by household chores begging to be accomplished.

As Barbara Chisholm plays her, Bombeck is at all times calm, cool, and collected even when the children are wreak havoc outside the safe haven provided by a closed door between Bombeck's bedroom and the rest of the house. Although Chisholm's voice and demeanor in Scene 1 seem a bit flat, her character quickly grows into the audaciously refreshing person Bombeck was: a woman who puts on pearls and high heels to vacuum her house, not-so-subtly mocking the "perfect" lives recommended by Good Housekeeping magazine.

Though Bombeck was a humorist, the Engel sisters did not shy away from writing about the more honest moments of her life, even when that honesty included pathos. They include the story of Bombeck encountering a 4-year-old child who was going through chemotherapy. "These people are crazy," Bombeck recalls the youngster saying. "One day, they take blood out of me. The next day, they put it back in." Toward the end of the play, At Wit's End considers the years that Bombeck was passionately involved in feminism, visiting every state in the country to speak in favor of passing the Equal Rights Amendment.

Director David Esbjornson does an excellent job of keeping up the brisk pace of this short play. Maximillian Bishop, Maya Brettell, John Lescault, Henry Metcalf, Michael Russotto, and the brilliant Holly Twyford provide very effective (pre-recorded) voices playing in Bombeck's memory. Daniel Conway's simple, 1960s middle-class house is a perfect setting for Erma and her family.

Many younger Americans may not even know who Erma Bombeck was. At Wit's End is a charming way to enlighten and entertain them.

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