The thing about Erma Bombeck is that she had a laugh in her voice. Not a big one, just enough of a smile that sent a signal that she was restraining herself, barely, from laughing at her own lines. Erma didn’t “LOL”, but she barely held it back.
That impish expression, and the turning cogs behind it, are missing in the new one-woman-show at Arena Stage, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End . It’s got its charms, though, for those with the gift of nostalgia.
If you’re old enough to remember Avocado Green coffee pots and like-colored kitchen appliances, then you surely remember (or your Mom does) clipping out Bombeck’s newspaper columns and scotch taping them to the fridge. The columns would stay posted long enough for the paper and the tape to turn a shade of dried horse glue yellow—and then some. Perhaps there was a copy of one of Bombeck’s best-selling books on the coffee table.
She was a mid-western housewife (does anyone still use that term?) who put her own interests aside to raise kids, pack lunches, and vacuum the living room before the kids and hubby got home, hungry for dinner.
By the time she hit her stride, Bombec k’s humorous pearls of household wisdom were syndicated to nine hundred newspapers—she was a household name and (here’s how we know about that laugh in her voice) even a TV presence, before dying too soon in 1996 at the age of 69.
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End stars actor Barbara Chisolm and was written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, the creative team who brought Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins to the stage some five years ago. Whereas their previous one-woman show had more movement and visuals, Bombeck takes place in a handsome mid-century home (very cool furniture and love the sea foam green upright Hoover) and seems rather still. The one hour show mixes Bombeck’s well- known punchlines with a linear biographical (autobiographical) track that holds up just long enough to make it to the end.
Not to say that there aren’t some great insights, many of which are less well-known: for instance, Bombeck was a Feminist, an activist who served on the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women. She really fought the good fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Chisholm keeps the information flowing, sometimes accompanied by recorded voices, sometimes just using her acting chops to serve as both narrator and character. She flattens those Ohioan vowels like a Saturday morning pancake, sometimes appearing more like Edie McClurg than Bombeck, but nevertheless gently guiding the audience through a life that had more pain than the public ever guessed, but more triumphs than even she thought she’d ever enjoy. Bombeck was a Domestic Goddess well before Roseanne ever made that her persona–decades before, and just as funny.
There’s nothing to be mad about here—you just wish those lines from a simpler time could still elicit laughs as hearty as they once did. Sometimes things are just too quiet.
Molly Ivins’ sharp tongue made for a more lively show, but one can’t help but think that Erma, sitting on her bed with her typewriter atop an ironing board, might have cracked the door open just enough for Ivins to kick it plumb off its hinges.
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End Continues at Arena Stage at the Mead Center For American Theater through November 8th. For tickets and more information, please visit: Arena Stage-Bombeck