The Women’s Voices Theater Festival ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ at Arena Stage

A Wonderful “Mom-ologue”

Many Baby Boomers’ earliest memories were of their stay-at-home mothers laughing at a risque line in an Erma Bombeck column, carefully cutting the column out – then glaring at us before running off to call a girlfriend and read Bombeck’s latest. And giggling.

Always the giggling!

Millennials haven’t a clue.

Bombeck’s thrice-weekly column was eventually syndicated to approximately 900 newspapers with a readership of over 30 million until her death in 1996. She was only 69.

But, oh what a life!

Before her passing, after enduring polycystic kidney disease her entire adult life, she’d become an American icon. Many of her fifteen books were best-sellers, some went to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. She was a regular commentator on Good Morning America,”appeared on local talk shows in towns where her columns were published, and was awarded over a dozen honorary degrees.

As an enthusiastic partner in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Arena Stage produced not one but two shows, of which this is the second.

Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Erma Bombeck: At With’s End, directed lovingly by David Esbjornson, is billed as a one-woman show with Texas-based actor Barbara Chisholm portraying Bombeck.

Would it be a stand-up comedy routine? Or someone reading Bombeck’s best quotes from a podium? Maybe a PowerPoint presentation?

It was beyond expectation.

The set, designed by Daniel Conway, was an amazing depiction of the Bombecks’ idyllic suburban home in the Cherrywood Acres community of Dayton, Ohio. It made suburbia look downright enticing.

The blonde wood stage and set visually appeared to float a few feet above the floor. Above it, like a giant picture frame, a wooden trapezoid was suspended on a slight angle high over the stage. The stage, partly a checkerboard floor and partly carpeted was furnished with three main “rooms” – TV room, bedroom and kitchen area. Support structures on either side of the bed were used as the front door and a door to the bedroom.

There were little touches, too. Like the “desk” that Bombeck used to type her columns. A basket of rumpled laundry (Is there any other kind?).

In addition to Chisholm, several actors, ranging from a third grader to Holly Twyford, a four-time Helen Hayes Award recipient, provided pre-recorded voices that were occasionally heard during Chisholm’s mom-ologues.

As the show opens, Chisholm is preparing breakfast for her three children Betsy, Andy and Matthew Bombeck. It’s the first day of school and kids and pets are underfoot.

A kid balks.

“How can a child eat yellow snow, kiss a dog on the lips … yet refuse to drink out of a cup his brother just used?” she wonders aloud.

The kids are finally off to school and she begins to ponder her life and look back.

“Motherhood is the world’s second oldest profession, but unlike the first, there’s no money in it,” she jokes.

That’s just for starters.

Director David Esbjornson and Associate Director Anita Maynard-Losh took the script by the Engel sisters, Allison and Margaret, and turned it into a panoramic view of the women’s movement of the late 20th century, revealed not in broad strokes but in small details and adeptly staged one-line zingers. All through the voice of one woman.

The sold-out house in the Kreeger gave Chisholm a standing ovation at the end – and, given the opportunity, probably would have during the show.

The Bombeck character movingly describes her Depression-era childhood. Her father died when she was 9. With her 25-year old mother (you read that right), she moved into her maternal grandparents house. An older half-sister was sent to live with paternal relatives. Bombeck did not see her again for seven years.

Throughout the show, Chisholm was not only believable as Bombeck, she was Bombeck as she moved through the years of Bombeck’s life as a young stay-at-home mom in 1962 to her final two decades as a women’s rights advocate.

Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Though the audience was kept in a state of near-constant laughter with the deftly utilized “Bombeck-isms,” Chisholm had the ticket-holders in tears at several points. And, ready to rally again during her emotional discussion of Bombeck’s involvement in the Equal Rights Amendment Movement – and the amendment’s failure to obtain ratification.

Bombeck was also appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on his ill-fated Advisory Committee for Women in 1978.

Quite a stunning evolution for a woman who rose to fame waxing on about the joys of suburban motherhood – and waxing floors.

Without revealing the plotline or the flow of the fast-moving show, here’s a few of Bombeck’s aphorisms that had the audience in stitches:

-Insanity is hereditary. You can catch it from your kids.

-Children should be judged on what they are — a punishment for an early marriage.

-The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.

-I’ve exercised with women so thin, buzzards followed them to their cars.

-I haven’t trusted polls since I read that 62% of women had affairs during their lunch hour. I’ve never met a woman in my life who would give up lunch for sex.

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.

Someone asked me the other day if I had my life to live over would I change anything. My answer was no, but then I thought about it and changed my mind.

-When I stand before God at the end of my life. I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, “I used everything you gave me.”

Do yourself a BIG favor and go meet Erma Bombeck again.

Or, meet her for the first time and discover what made your grandmother LOL.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End plays through November 8, 2015,  in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.  

Post-Show Discussions will be held after these shows: October 27th at 7:30 p.m., October 29th at 8 p.m., and November 4th at 12 noon.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!


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