Humor and heart: Pam Sherman is icon Erma Bombeck on Geva stage
Katherine Varga Published 4:28 p.m. ET Jan. 18, 2018 | Updated 10:57 a.m. ET Jan. 19, 2018
Humor columnist Pam Sherman will be playing humor columnist Erma Bombeck in Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, a one-woman show in the Fielding Stage at Geva Theatre Center from Jan. 25 to Feb. 18.
“It’s a little spot-on casting, don’t you think?” says Sherman.
As The Suburban Outlaw columnist for Rochester Magazine and the Democrat and Chronicle, Sherman has drawn inspiration from Bombeck in her own work. But she also has the stage chops to portray her, not just be inspired by her.
Sherman became a professional actor after ending her job as an attorney in a shift that was documented in a People magazine story on career changers. (She still refers to herself as “a recovering lawyer.”) She performed for theater, film and television, with credits including Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and Unsolved Mysteries.
In 2001, she moved from Washington, D.C. to Pittsford, when her husband moved his business to our region. She did perform once more, in 2004 in a one-woman show she co-wrote called Pumping Josey: Life and Death in Suburbia, inspired by the death of a close friend. But her acting career took a back seat as she focused on raising a family and, later, running her own leadership consultant company, The ShermanEDGE.
As a trained actor, Pam Sherman is comfortable on stage: She's a frequent MC of charitable events and an international public speaker.
As a trained actor, Pam Sherman is comfortable on stage: She's a frequent MC of charitable events and an international public speaker. (Photo: archive)
In her writing, which also appears in Gannett publications around the country, Sherman tries to dispel myths about suburbia. “Suburbia isn’t about sameness,” she says. “There are a lot of interesting, iconic people here and people who are doing great things and making a difference.”
Including Sherman, who has traveled extensively throughout the country and world for her business and given presentations in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Australia.
So what brought her back to theater?
Mark Cuddy, artistic director of Geva Theatre Center, read the script to Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End after seeing the 2015 premiere at Arena Stage in D.C. and knew he wanted to direct it.
He was struck by how much has been forgotten about the bestselling writer. Bombeck rose to fame with her humor column "At Wit’s End," which focused on motherhood and suburban life. By the 1970s, 900 papers were syndicating her column.
“She was tapping into a voice that had not been heard before,” Cuddy says. “That’s why she was doing it — to give voice to women who decided to work all day on their family, home life and kids.”
Columnist Erma Bombeck is shown in this October 1993
Columnist Erma Bombeck is shown in this October 1993 file photo at her home in Phoenix. Bombeck died in 1996 in San Francisco where she had undergone a kidney transplant. She was 69. (Photo: David Nelson, No-GRN)
The play, written by twin journalists Allison and Margaret Engel, gives Bombeck the chance to tell her story directly to the audience. In addition to highlighting Bombeck’s famous humor, the play delves into her lesser-known work as an activist for the Equal Rights Amendment.
“She was dismissed and she should not have been,” says Cuddy. “I feel strongly that it’s time to re-examine her.”
As he read the play, Cuddy could hear only one voice in his head: “It just seemed like Pam was the contemporary Erma.”
When he told Sherman he wanted to meet her in person, she struggled to find time in her busy schedule. She asked if Cuddy could meet her at her gym. “Like, what actor says that to the artistic director of an equity theatre?” she says, laughing.
When Cuddy handed her the script (after she had finished her workout, naturally), she had an immediate visceral reaction when she saw the title.
“I burst into tears," she says, because Bombeck is such an iconic inspiration to her. "And then I said, ‘No, I can’t, because I’m not an actor anymore!’ And then I actually slept on it and thought, ‘How do I turn this down? What an opportunity.’”
And Rochester’s only opportunity, apparently. “I would probably not do it if Pam said no,” Cuddy admits. “I thought she’d be the perfect person.”
For Sherman, part of the allure was the challenge of a one-woman show. “For an actor who doesn’t sing, a one-woman show is like the best aria ever.
More importantly, though, she credits Bombeck for paving the way for female columnists like herself.
When Sherman was first approached about writing a column for Rochester Magazine, she remembers thinking, “Would it be OK for me to just talk about my husband and his terrible fashion sense? My kids and driving them to tae kwon do?"
Thanks to Erma Bombeck’s legacy, she found she could.
“She was a Catholic housewife with three children in Dayton, Ohio, who from her bedroom started writing columns three times a week that then got syndicated around the country,” Sherman says. “She gave me permission to write about slices of life.”
Sherman’s column The Suburban Outlaw now appears nationally through Gannett newspaper sites and was the basis for her book, The Suburban Outlaw: Tales from the EDGE. The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, a popular program run by the University of Dayton, named Sherman its Humor Writer of the Month for December 2017.
Sherman says working on this show has only deepened her appreciation for Bombeck — in fact, Sherman is now working to nominate Bombeck for the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.
“I wouldn’t write the way I write without her honesty, humor and ability to just tell the truth about small things in life and make them meaningful.”