On Stage: Suburban Struggles

by Chuck Conconi

Arena Stage’s one-woman show accurately depicts the struggles of 1950s humor columnist Erma Bombeck.

Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck in "Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End" at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck in “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Erma Bombeck may not be remembered by many people, but when she was writing her humor column it was syndicated to 900 newspapers across the United States and Canada, not to mention that she wrote 15 books, many that became bestsellers and she appeared twice a week on Good Morning America.

As part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Arena Stage is presenting a one-woman show: “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” giving voice to a woman who was a committed feminist but spoke to the mundane world of the average housewife and mother. By poking fun at herself as a fellow frustrated homemaker with gentle, but incisive humor, Bombeck became a widely-read and widely-loved national voice who spoke to millions of homemakers who also felt trapped in the thankless, but important role of housewife and mother.

Written by accomplished journalist twin sisters: Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, the one hour Erma Bombeck play is being performed inArena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, a 200-seat theater carefully designed to develop and showcase new plays.

One man productions are often successful because they are performed by famous, veteran actors enacting larger than life figures that are widely known. They can be difficult to stage because there is a need for props and a set of some kind so they aren’t static, but not so many props that they become intrusive. In this production, the bed, kitchen table and chairs, ironing board and other household additions are unnecessary. What carries this production is Bombeck’s words, her thoughtful, self-effacing humor that is still ironic and delightfully funny, but never mean.

Barbara Chisholm is a believable Bombeck. She brings to the role an understanding of what it is like to be trapped in the suburban world of stultifying housekeeping and demanding children. Chisholm and the playwrights clearly understand the vicissitudes and frustrations of Bombeck who came of age in the static 1950s, but went on to achieve success and become involved with the women’s movement and joined the losing fight to pass an Equal Rights Amendment for women.

“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” directed by David Esbjornson, with an understanding gentle touch, is a work in progress that will improve as it is reworked and restructured. What isn’t necessary is the dramatic devise of using commentary from off-stage voices to move the story. The devise is intrusive and adds little to the momentum of the play.

In the end, however, this play can become a successful and important theatrical experience that will be attractive to theater groups all across the country and will offer an unexpected introduction to a talented woman for people who never heard of Bombeck or ever read any of her books or the 9,000 columns she wrote over her career.

“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” continues through November 8 at Arena Stage the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St., SW. Tickets are $55-$110 and available at 202-488-3300 or online here

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