By Scott Clark
“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” – Erma Bombeck
There is a moment, partway through the one-woman show, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, at the Lincoln Community Playhouse, where Erma reminisces about the impact her writing has had on one of her readers. This moment of revelation unveils some raw, painful emotion in the expression on actress Deanna Walz’s face. In the midst of a fun, laugh-filled hour, this short, quiet moment crystallizes the realization that there may be more to Erma Bombeck than meets the eye.
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, is a one-hour, one-woman show. Journalists Margaret Engel and Allison Engel poured over more than 30 years’ worth of columnist/essayist Erma Bombeck’s writings, to create a running autobiographical monologue. The entire play features Erma speaking directly to the audience, recalling her life, mostly in chronological order, and the circumstances that led her to becoming a humorous columnist and best-selling author. She decries the seemingly negative connotation that the phrase “just a housewife” seems to have with some people, and celebrates the hard work put in by women (like her) who remained in the home to raise families.
Her lifetime of writing about the foibles of parenting, raising a family, maintaining a strong marriage, and keeping your sanity amidst the chaos of ordinary life, caused her to be a publishing sensation. Starting with a series of occasional columns for the Dayton (OH) Shopping News in the 1950s, Erma began a weekly column – “At Wit’s End” – for the Dayton Journal Herald in 1965. When her column became syndicated in the 1970s, she eventually increased to three columns per week, and her work was published in over 900 newspapers across the country, as well as in such national magazines as Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, and more. During her lifetime (1927-1996), she also published 15 books, mostly collections of her columns.
“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.” – Erma Bombeck
In this play, Erma interacts with other family members, in absentia, as well as unseen visitors to her front door, and there are occasional moments of voice-over narration. But the absence of any other actors on the stage means the play’s success rides squarely on the shoulders of Walz, who doesn’t disappoint. She roams the simple, spartan stage (which includes spaces to represent a bedroom, a kitchen and a front door/entryway). She pours herself coffee, does a little vacuuming, answers the phone, and sets up an ironing board, which serves both its intended purposes and as a temporary desk for her portable typewriter. But, Walz is on the move almost constantly, making full use of the space in the studio theater, and addressing herself to all corners of the audience. When I asked her about the challenges of doing a one-woman show, she said “I didn’t realize how much energy it would take to sustain the whole performance. In a regular performance often you have a chance to pop backstage and recharge. Not the case with this. You have to be ‘on’ the whole time. It’s like a marathon!”
“I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired for an affair.” – Erma Bombeck
But Walz pulls it off with aplomb. Her Bombeck is a respectful mix of tribute to the well-known humorist, combined with Walz’s desire to pull in elements from her own life, particularly as a mother – a life that Bombeck has influenced. When asked if she was a Bombeck fan before being cast in this show, Walz said, “I was indeed! My mom had several books of hers, and I read them when I was a girl. Erma greatly influenced not only my own writing style (she was the original mommy blogger) but taught me to approach the challenges of motherhood with a sense of humor.” The actress’s affection for the writer is obvious to the audience – she captures the humorous moments of Bombeck’s signature “quotable” quips with a twinkle in her eye and a quirky smile. The audience at the performance my wife and I attended on Saturday night had a great time, and there were a lot of laughs throughout the packed house. Deanna Walz connected with many in that audience by recognizing who was laughing and sharing knowing winks, looks, or “you know what I mean” reactions with many of the individual audience members.
“Housework, if you do it right, will kill you.” – Erma Bombeck
Having grown up in the 1970s and early 1980s (and having read her column in my mother’s Good Housekeeping magazines for years), I thought I knew a lot about Bombeck. But I learned new things about her from this play, such as her fight against cancer, and her influential involvement with the women’s rights movement and the attempts to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. This was a subject near and dear to Bombeck, and it was an education to Walz as well, as she prepared for her performances – “I always knew she was funny, but I didn’t know about what an important role she played for women in the ’70s. She was very important for the women’s rights movements, and it was a joy to be able to discover more about that.”
“God created man. But I could do better.” – Erma Bombeck
Finally, I asked Walz if she had any favorite Bombeck quote, after having been exposed to so many of the columnist’s pithy, observant, and wry comments. Walz said she identified with one particular line from Bombeck, that the author used to sum up her life and accomplishments as she imagined standing before her Creator and saying – “When I stood before Him at the end of my life, I didn’t want to have a single bit of energy or talent left. I wanted to wear out, not rust out. I looked forward to saying, ‘I used everything you gave me.’ “
Theater-goers in Lincoln have really connected with this humorous biographical play – three additional performances have been added to its run, beyond what was originally planned. This is a tribute, in part, to the enduring popular writing of Bombeck – whose columns graced refrigerators, office cubicles and school lockers for decades – a friend, after the show, said he’d carried one of her columns in his wallet for years! But it is also a tribute to the artistry of Deanna Walz, the pacing of director Judy Hart, and the skilled and efficient production crew of this play. If you’d like to enjoy an uplifting and nostalgic look back at one of America’s most noteworthy humorists, see if you can get a ticket to one of the remaining performances. You won’t be disappointed!
If you go: The Lincoln Community Playhouse is located at 2500 S. 56th St. in Lincoln, NE. Remaining performances include: one evening (7:30 p.m.) show on Friday, February 1st, and five 2:00 p.m. matinee shows on Sunday, January 20th, Thursday, January 31st, Saturday, February 2nd, Saturday February 9th, and Sunday, February 10th. Get your tickets now online or by calling the box office at (402) 489-7529.
Scott Clark has worked in a variety of roles for the Lincoln City Libraries for nearly 40 years, where he regularly shares book, music, and film reviews on their readers advisory website. He’s also reviewed books for the Lincoln Journal Star, and has shared his reviews of films and stage shows on his blog and Facebook feeds for many years. He’s a reader, writer, and sometimes actor, who loves to share his enthusiasms, in an effort to connect people with things they just might fall in love with!