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At Wit's End
Millenials may not recognize the name Erma Bombeck, their mothers might, but their grandmothers certainly will. Bombeck chronicaled the lives led by many if not most women in the 1960's with her insightful and very humorous newspaper columns and books. In the era before women's lib, before many women were educated beyond high school and entered the work force out of ambition or necessity, women worked out of the house briefly, before marrying and having children.
Dad went to work while stay-at-home Moms raised the kids, did the laundry and ironed their husband's shirts, vacuumed the shag carpet and did not really question their lot in life. Erma Bombeck could not suppress, nor did she want to, her take on what was happening in middle class, Mid-Western suburbs. She was a housewife (before that became a loaded term), married to a journalist, mother of three rowdy kids who recognized the ironies in her day-to-day life. Domesticity was not Bombeck's forte — particularly cooking.
Erma Bombeck's childhood had been difficult. Her father died when she was 9 and much as her mother tried she could not stave off the repo man. She became an avid reader and talented writer, particularly of humorous one-liners. On spec, she typed on a manual typewriter, while sitting on a bed and using an ironing board as a desk, a column for the Dayton, Ohio (where she lived) newspaper. The column was such a success that it led to syndication and numerous bestselling books. Erma made it big.
Currently in Arena Stage's Cradle Theater, At Wit's End, the world premiere of a "play" by twin sisters Allison Engel and Margaret Engel consisting of Erma's funny lines with some bio thrown in, is a slight one-woman show much like the Engel sisters previous one-hander, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Clearly the twin playwrights are using a formula for works whose best lines come from other writers in slight shows that are cheap to produce.
Daniel Conway's set of chrome and plastic kitchen furniture and a bed covered with a chenille spread certainly evokes the unimaginative home furnishing of the '60's. Elizabeth Hope Clancy's shirtwaist dress worn by Barbara Chisolm who plays Erma is equally and appropriately ordinary. Chisolm's performance brings out her character's many strengths as well as sentimental, loving feelings for the family she used as column-fodder.
What I had not known prior to seeing At Wit's End, was how involved Erma Bombeck became in the women's movement. After attending a talk by Betty Friedan, she got fired up by such issues as equal pay and affordable child care. She was particularly active politicking for the Equal Rights Amendment. Her efforts alongside Friedan and Gloria Steinem were fervent if not always successful.
So ... the question is: is it worth fighting traffic, finding parking, etc. for a one-hour long, one-woman show (tickets are from $55 to $110) that quotes lines that are readily available on the web? I think not.