Lovable Erma Bombeck Speaks Across Generations
Syndicated columnist Erma Bombeck, the ’60s suburban Ohio housewife who found humor in marriage, raising kids, and the mundane tasks of laundry and cooking, once said, “The key to my writing is that I am ordinary.”
Readers would disagree. Bombeck’s "At Wit’s End" column for the Dayton Journal-Herald skyrocketed during the 1980s, running three times a week in 900 newspapers across North America. The self-deprecating writer, who was 69 at the time of her death in 1996, also authored 13 books (10 New York Times best-sellers) and was a popular contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America.
Now she’s back, at least in stage form. Rochester Magazine and Democrat and Chronicle columnist Pam Sherman portrays the humorist with a plucky, one-two punch delivery. Her performance could easily lead Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End to continue its streak of sold-out performances at Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage during its twice-extended run, now through Feb. 25.
Rochester’s own “Suburban Outlaw,” who worked as a professional actor before embarking on a writing career, certainly enjoyed a solid legion of followers on opening night. Director Mark Cuddy’s brisk pace swept them along throughout the one-hour show, which touched on key biographical elements in a script written by journalists/sisters Allison Engel and Margaret Engel.
The cookie-cutter house set was perfectly aligned with Sherman’s vintage look. Wearing a shirtwaist dress, heels and a sweater, she whizzed around stage — multitasking through ironing, vacuuming and cooking while musing about how difficult it was to find time to write a column in the short time the kids were at school and her husband was at work.
Bombeck’s cathartic messages spoke to women across generations, finding common ground in all of them.
“The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I can hear heavy breathing again.”
“In two decades, I‘ve lost a total of 789 pounds. I should be hanging from a charm bracelet.”
An engaging storyteller, Sherman captures Bombeck’s trademark wit and the nutty stuff that every family goes through — carpooling, children clamoring for a pet, not seeing the floor of a teenage daughter’s room for years, a husband who wears a T-shirt with a potent message for grown children: “How can I say goodbye when you won’t leave?”
Sherman isn’t funny in the sense of being a stand-up comedian. Instead, this show revives the essence of the quintessential humorist in a more modest, unassuming, sincere and lovable way.
One minute she shares a chuckling reminder of sublime ridiculousness: “Our kids wouldn’t eat anything they hadn’t seen dance on television.” The next she discusses shock at hearing feminist activist Betty Friedan refer to journalists like Bombeck as Uncle Toms, and how she later joined forces with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug to push for ratification of the never-passed Equal Rights Amendment.
And then she suddenly has us in tears as she reminisces about how children eventually become parents to their own parent, describing how Bombeck hit the brakes of her car and instinctively put out her arm in front of her mother, who was riding in the passenger seat, and then, years later, how her own daughter attempted to shield her the same way.
For many of us, At Wit’s End brings back wonderful memories of simpler times, and a viewpoint on those times that remains relevant to this day. Take it from Bombeck: “When humor goes, there goes civilization.”
Marcia Morphy is a Rochester-area freelancer covering the arts.
January 29, 2018 | USA Today Network