It’s probably true that since her passing in 1996, there’s a whole generation who have never heard of Erma Bombeck. For most of us, that’s difficult to believe. During her time as humorist and syndicated newspaper columnist from the sixties to the nineties, even if you only glanced at her writing or maybe never read it all, you still knew who Erma Bombeck was. There were so many great lines to quote.
But time marches on, and the older we get, the faster the passing of time, and the faster the changes to our culture. Reading habits have altered. Newspapers themselves are fading. In a world where the average American reader tends to look for a specific story online, coming across the work of a columnist is rare, and if it does happen, then it’s often by accident. Knowing how Erma rose to fame is a story that would not occur today; at least, not by the same route.
In director Casey Stangl’s one-woman, single act play Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, presented by Arizona Theatre Company and playing now until December 2 at Herberger Theater Center, writers Margaret Engel and Allison Engel explore the world of a mother and housewife who by the end of her career had written for more than 4,000 newspaper columns and published 15 bestsellers. But despite ATC’s high standard of production, it’s not much of a play.
Beginning appropriately with the sound of a typewriter gently tapping its keys, Jeanne Paulsen as Erma enters Jo Winiarski’s nicely detailed set of a modestly designed living room and kitchen and immediately engages the audience. She introduces herself with a brief overview of her formative years during wartime, then dives headfirst into the trials and tribulations of being a mother, a wife, and a housewife. What a concept, she declares. “A woman married to a house.”
“Writing a column was what I could do,” Erma tells us after vacuuming the carpet and letting us know that when using the cleaner on a floor littered with children’s toys, “It often works best when you pick up the army men first.”
Like Erma’s column, the script is full of observational wit, culled from the writer’s work. “God bless television,” she states. “Our kids wouldn’t eat anything they hadn’t seen dance on TV.” And on the subject of food: “Why take pride in cooking when they don’t take pride in eating?” And as for household equipment, there’s the smoke alarm that, “…Told the family when dinner was ready.” The play’s title comes from the Newsday Newspaper Syndicate title given to her work, At Wit’s End.
Paulsen is clearly a great actor, something that’s evident not so much when she’s talking directly to the house but in those moments that require theatrical business like answering the phone when she learns of an offer to write, or when she successfully suspends our disbelief and talks to her unseen children at the dinner table. “Don’t worry about that tooth,” she says as she arranges breakfast. “It’s going to come out sooner or later.”
Despite the humor, the play becomes more interesting in those all too brief moments where something of a more serious nature is tackled, such as the reading of a letter from a woman serving life for killing her own child, or the look of surprise on Erma’s face when attending a Betty Friedan lecture and hearing the feminist activist talk on the subject of housewife columnists, stating, “There’s something about this writing that reminds me of Uncle Tom.”
But there’s not a lot of gravitas to the mildly entertaining thin material. With a running time of only sixty minutes, there’s a feeling you’re already getting up to leave before you’ve settled. Erma’s time as a frequent guest on TV talk shows are never covered, nor is her time as a television writer. And, unless I missed the reference, it’s never mentioned that on the immense success of her columns, her books, and her TV work, the modest housewife from Ohio bought an estate here in Phoenix and moved her family locally to Paradise Valley.
If you were a reader of her columns, know her books, heard her as a regular guest on Arthur Godfrey’s Radio Show, and watched her decade-long work on ABC’s Good Morning America it’s doubtful you’ll leave the theatre having learned anything new that you didn’t already know about Erma Bombeck. In fact, you’ll probably know more than the play relates. There’s good information to be found in a small exhibit in the theatre’s lobby consisting of newspaper clippings, early magazine covers, and black and white pictures of the time. Frankly, they add more weight to Erma’s background than the play itself. But if you’re part of that generation who went in knowing nothing about the columnist, it’s doubtful you’ll leave with an inspiration to find out more.
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is playing now until December 2 at Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix
Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller