Erma Bombeck: One-woman Geva show 'At Wit's End' seems as timely as ever
Katherine Varga Published 4:34 p.m. ET Jan. 18, 2018 | Updated 10:11 a.m. ET Jan. 19, 2018
“One of our early memories was seeing our mom holding the paper at the dining room table, laughing so hard that the paper was shaking, and we’d go, ‘Mom, what’s so funny, what’s so funny?’ and all she could get out were two words: ‘Erma Bombeck.’ ”
So says Allison Engel, the journalist and playwright who co-wrote the one-woman show Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End with her twin sister, also a journalist and executive director of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation.
Allison would argue that anytime is the perfect time for Erma Bombeck: “By and large, her columns could run today just the way she wrote them.”
Many theaters, however, seem to think that now is the right time for her story. In 2018, seven theaters (including Geva Theatre Center) will be including the show in their seasons: Fountain Hills Theater (Fountain Hills, Arizona), Virginia Repertory Theatre (Hanover, Virginia), The Human Race Company Theatre (Dayton, Ohio), Cape May Staged (Cape May, New Jersey), Beachball Productions (Wolfville, Nova Scotia), and Arizona Theatre Company (Phoenix).
For her fans who believe that her work and life have been underappreciated, it’s high time.
“Because her columns were carried primarily on what was called the women’s pages, or the features pages, she didn’t get the journalistic kudos that I think she should have,” Engel says.
It was 1965 when Bombeck began writing her humor column for the Dayton Journal Herald that would eventually be syndicated to 900 newspapers, three times a week. She went on to write best-selling books, including If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. She was also a popular contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America.
She excelled in her career while maintaining a household and raising three children. “She was extremely disciplined as a writer. But when the kids came home (from school), she was just Mom,” says Engel, who interviewed the family when writing the play.
Bombeck considered herself first and foremost a journalist, with motherhood as her beat. She refused to endorse any products or do commercials because it would violate her journalistic integrity.
One thing that surprised Engel when researching Bombeck was her activism. Bombeck spent two years stumping for the Equal Rights Amendment, seeking equal protection under the law regardless of gender.
Pam Sherman, who will be starring as Erma in the production at Geva Theatre Center, says, “She’s the woman who made fun of her scale and her children watching television, but she had this incredible life as an advocate on behalf of women and the ERA.”
Amid the current reckoning against powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, and with the rise of the #MeToo movement encouraging women to share their stories of sexual assault, Sherman finds it inspiring for women and mothers to know about Erma’s activism: “There was a woman who was just like them, fighting the good fight.”
But women are not the only audience for this play. When Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End premiered in 2015 as part of the Women’s Theatre Festival in D.C., Engel was surprised by the emotional reaction it got from men, saying they recognized their mothers in Erma and “recognized that their mothers hadn’t gotten the attention that they deserved.”
Bombeck’s legacy as a humor writer lives on through the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop, which will be having its 10th workshop this April.
The workshop began in 2000 as a way to bring attention to the Bombeck family donating Erma’s papers to the University of Dayton archives.
Teri Rizvi, the workshop’s founder and current director, said she expected the three-day workshop to be a one-time event. However, it was so enjoyable that she helped plan another two years later, as a “labor of love.”
Since then, the event has grown more popular and gets sold out within hours of the opening of registration.
“There’s something there, the spirit of Erma, that is really appealing to people, particularly writers,” she explains.
Engel, who appeared with a reading of At Wit’s End at the 2016 workshop, says the workshop is a fitting tribute.
“I think if Erma were alive today, she’d be really pleased at how her legacy has been helping other women in their writing voice and giving them the courage to get out there and do it.”
This year, the workshop will include a two-week, humor-writer-in-residence program, or “A Hotel Room of One’s Own.”
“In many ways, our country is troubled and divided,” says Rizvi. “We need laughter more than anything. It brings us together in our common humanity.”
Sherman agrees: “We need a little humanity, grace, and humor in the middle of the constant tragedy. …I think we need more Erma Bombeck, don’t you?”