FLORIDA WEEKLY RAVES: “LAUGHING WITH ERMA BOMBECK AT FLORIDA REPERTORY THEATRE”October 20, 2016
Making someone laugh is no small feat.
Consistently making them laugh continually is even more impressive.
At the height of her popularity, humor columnist Erma Bombeck accomplished that at least twice a week in 900 newspapers across the United States and Canada. She did it by telling the truth about motherhood and family life, demonstrating the adage that the more specific you are, the more universal your appeal.
It was Erma who wrote: “Housework can kill you if done right” and “Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.”
She’d also toss off lines such as, “I come from a family where gravy is a beverage” and “God created man, but I could do better.”
You don’t have to be a mother to appreciate her humor; anyone who’s ever lived in a family can relate to her writing. Her columns adorned refrigerator doors in homes coast-to-coast.
“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” is an intimate look at the woman whose words resounded with so many. Written by twin sisters Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, the play is having its southeastern U.S. premiere in Fort Myers.
The one-woman production stars Carrie Lund, and it’s a perfect marriage of her humor and Bombeck’s. Ms. Lund, as evidenced in previous shows at Florida Rep, possesses great comedic delivery. But this role is more challenging than others, as the total weight of the script is on her shoulders. Plus, she has to recreate Bombeck’s personality, so she can’t be snide or arch or deliver a line in a way that would be out of character.
Under Michael Marotta’s direction, Ms. Lund goes through a variety of emotions: wistfulness, exasperation, gratitude, resolve.
In the small studio space, we’re onlookers to the Bombeck home in Dayton, Ohio, skillfully designed by Jordan Moore. At one end: a bedroom, where Erma does her writing (manual typewriter perched on top of an ironing board.) At the other: a vintage kitchen, complete with white Formica table, aqua cabinets and refrigerator (decorated with children’s drawings and a handwritten grocery list). The living room is mid-theater, complete with TV Guides and magazines of the era. No detail is overlooked,
The show starts a little slow, with Bombeck speaking to her invisible family, sending them off to school and work. But the pace picks up when it’s just her and the audience.
An upbeat, positive woman, she came from difficult beginnings. She was born to a teenage mother, and her father died when she was 9. But I loved this little factoid: As a girl, Erma earned money by tap dancing on a radio program; apparently Americans were so in love with tap dancing they’d even listen to it on the radio. (Better that than a mime, I guess.)
Although she was thrilled with being a mother, Erma longed for more. She began writing a column for her weekly paper, which paid her $3 a submission. Then the Dayton Herald asked her to write for them, and she wrote two weekly columns for $50. After only a few weeks, her columns went into national syndication to 36 papers.
And her popularity grew. And grew.
Her books — “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank,” “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” and “Aunt Erma’s Cope Book,” to name just a few — became bestsellers.
Her appeal: Erma told the truth about what it’s like to be a wife and mother. She loved both roles dearly, but the endless housekeeping wasn’t a constant ecstasy the way it was for women in magazines and commercials. Her take on it all? “My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?”
Ms. Lund does a funny impersonation of the perfect woman in those commercials, vacuuming her living room rug as if it makes her deliriously happy.
But at times I felt bad for the actress, who’s a flurry of motion, setting the table, clearing the table, vacuuming, tidying up, folding laundry, ironing. It was tiring to just watch her.
We’re chuckling before the play even begins, as Bombeck’s words are projected onto the walls. (During the show, they’re replaced by images of people such as Shirley Temple, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, as Bombeck narrates her life through the decades.)
Why was she so popular?
“The key to my writing is: I’m ordinary,” she confesses.
She seems most at home seated behind her manual typewriter, keys click-clacking as she writes her column. (Her children, told not to bother her unless there’s an emergency, slide her notes under the bedroom door.)
Erma Bombeck was a woman of her time.
She heard Betty Friedan speak and, like many other women, had her consciousness raised. In the ’70s, she became involved in the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women and traveled around the country speaking on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment. (It’s amazing to hear how modern some of the arguments against it sound — the same comments being made today against gay marriage and unisex bathrooms.)
The play, named after Bombeck’s column, is a whirlwind tour through the humorist’s life. It cleverly blends her witty observations and one-liners into the monologue.
Florida Rep knows its audience; women (and some men) of a certain age laughed in recognition at the lines and situations. I couldn’t help but wonder how this play would be received by a younger demographic who grew up with cutting, snarky humor and might not know even who Erma Bombeck was.
And I also wondered, if she had lived, what she would’ve thought of our current political situation; though her columns weren’t political, she was.
With only 70 minutes to cover an entire life, it’s only inevitable some things are left out. The play doesn’t mention, for example, that Bombeck made anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million a year during the 1980s, or that she appeared twice a week on “Good Morning America” from 1975 to 1986.
It does include her battle with breast cancer and later, her struggle with kidney disease, but not that at least 30 readers offered to donate a kidney to her (unfortunately, none were a match).
It does include lines from her famous column, “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” a powerful reminder to focus on the things that are truly important.
Erma Bombeck told us, “If you can laugh at it, you can live with it.” She helped us through the rough spots and let us know we weren’t alone.