By Dan Mearns
If you don’t know Erma Bombeck, get on Google right now, run to the library, and be sure to get tickets for the Charlotte Players’ January production: Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.
You’ll meet Erma in this one-woman show in the person of Sandi Wood, one of the community theater’s most talented and accomplished actors (Steel Magnolias, Hello Dolly, Smell of the Kill, Annoyance, Wife Begins at 40, Dixie Swim Club and Not Now Darling).
The same could be said of Paula Pender, a leading lady who has emerged as one of the Charlotte Players’ top directors. Starting in 2009, her directing resume includes Catch Me If You Can, Meet Me in St. Louis, White Christmas, Annie, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Singin’ in the Rain and many more. Meanwhile, she continues to demonstrate her superb acting chops (Driving Miss Daisy, The Glass Menagerie, My Fair Lady, Camelot and Mama Won’t Fly).
Written by twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End allows Erma to tell her own story, leading the audience through her years in Dayton, Ohio, as a 1950s housewife and mother whose musings on life in the suburbs evolved into a weekly newspaper column called “At Wit’s End.”
“Those of us in the ‘Baby Boomer Generation’ surely remember Erma Bombeck and her natural humor and wit,” Pender said. “We read her columns in the newspapers and heard her interviews on television. She was part of every household in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Sandi and I come from different generations, yet Erma’s charm and true-to-life experiences have survived both of those generations and are still relevant today. For instance, what I heard from children growing up in the ’50s and ’60s and what Sandi heard growing up in the ’70s and ’80s – such as a whinny “mom” and “she/he hit me – make her/him stop” – are still being heard by the mothers of today
“The roles of moms and dads may differ slightly from those of yesteryear and technology has certainly altered children’s activities,” Pender added, “but the staples of everyday life from generations past still exist today, and I’m sure will go on ad infinitum.”
So popular were Bombeck’s columns that she wound up entertaining 30 million readers in 900 newspapers in the United States and Canada. She captured the frustrations of her generation by asking, “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?”
In 1967, her newspaper columns were compiled and published by Doubleday under the title At Wit’s End. It was the first of her 22 books, and she was a correspondent for Good Morning America for 15 years.
She also became an activist on behalf of women, a position that came with some sacrifices. In 1978, she was involved in the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women, particularly for the final implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment. Bombeck was strongly criticized conservative figures, and some U.S. stores reacted by removing her books. In addition, renowned feminist Betty Friedan criticized housewife humor columnists.
“My twin and I were huge fans of Erma from a very young age,” Margaret Engel said. “We’re also from Ohio, a little town called Chagrin Falls, and we used to read her every day in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. So, when her agent asked us to do a play about Erma, we jumped at the chance.”
Ivins and Bombeck thought of themselves as journalists first and humorists second, so a play about Erma was a perfect fit for the sisters.
“Despite being the most admired woman in America for many years. Erma would never do endorsements,” Engel said. “And believe me, she got asked. Every kitchen cleaner wanted Erma to speak for their product, but she felt rightly that she was a journalist first and she would never do that.”
Bombeck died in April of 1996, before the Engels began the project, but they were able to speak with Bombeck’s husband, Bill (who died in 2018).
“The family had moved to Phoenix from Dayton later in life,” Engel said. “We got to interview Bill and their three children. They were so helpful and fun and excited about the project, so it was a true family effort.”
The sisters read as many of Bombeck’s columns as they could find, as well as all her books. They also did extensive research and interviews.
“The play is not a compilation of all of her greatest hits,” Engel said, “because anyone could go to the library and get that. We made her writing career as a jumping off point for a dramatic story of her life. We don’t want people to just think that they’re going to get a raft of one-liners. That doesn’t tell you about Erma’s character and what she was like.”
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End opens Thursday, Jan. 7 for a 7:30 performance at the Langdon Playhouse, 1182 Market Circle, Port Charlotte. There are 11 shows in all, including Wednesday – Friday evening performances, evening and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday, Jan. 9 and 16, and Sunday matinees on Jan. 10 and 17.
Tickets are priced at $22 for adults and $11 for students and may be ordered at www.charlotteplayers.org or by calling 941-255-1022 weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Audience members will have their temperatures taken upon entering the theater, will be seated far enough apart to meet COVID-19 recommendations and be provided with masks (if needed).
The play was presented eight times around the country in 2020. The Charlotte Players event will be the first for 2021.
Co-author Margaret Engel is expected to be on hand for one of the performances. She came to Port Charlotte last May to meet with Pender, Wood and Charlotte Players executive director Sherrie Moody.
“This is really a great privilege to be with the creators who are going to bring this to life,” Moody said. “I think the people in Charlotte County are in for a very good time.”
By Dan Mearns