An Interview: Meet the Star and Director of MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’

Karen MacDonald stars as Erma Bombeck in “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End. / Photo: Megpix/Meghan Moore

by Shelley A. Sackett

LOWELL — It may surprise many to learn that Erma Bombeck, the celebrated humorist, was not Jewish. With lines like, “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I doing in the Pits?” the big-hearted mother of three had the wit, wisdom, and chutzpah that are hallmarks of a classic Jewish mother. Her nationally syndicated column, “At Wit’s End,” ran in 900 newspapers and championed the undervalued everyday lives of millions of stay-at-home suburban moms, offering them a cathartic lifeline of truth, daring, and laughter. She boosted their spirits by poking fun at herself and her life’s ups and downs in an original, comic voice that was both sassy and satiric.

Born in small-town Bellbrook, Ohio, to a working-class family in 1927, she wrote her first humorous column for her junior high school newspaper and went on to write for the Dayton Herald. She wrote a series of columns while at home with her young children and resumed her writing career in 1965 with biweekly humor columns. Within three weeks of the first articles’ publication, she was picked up for national syndication, appearing three times a week in 36 papers under the title “At Wit’s End.”

By the time of her death in 1969, she had written 15 books and appeared regularly on “Good Morning America.”
As a timely antidote to a bleak January’s cold, snow, and COVID, Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell is serving up a sunny dose of Bombeck’s humor in its one-woman show, “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” from Feb. 24 through March 13.

Boston based actor, director, and teacher Karen MacDonald will bring Erma’s larger than life personality to the stage. She remembers Bombeck as part of her family’s life from a young age. Her mother, a big fan, would laugh out loud as she read the column every morning, often posting her favorites on the refrigerator.

“You couldn’t bother Mom until she finished ‘reading her Erma,’” MacDonald said by email.

In preparation for the role, MacDonald, who loves doing research, read many of her books, a biography, and revisited “The Feminine Mystique,” a book by Betty Friedan that Bombeck credited as her personal wake-up call.

In the course of her research, MacDonald discovered that Bombeck was complex, funny, and an astute observer of ordinary life. She also discovered much to admire: Bombeck’s diligence in writing three columns a week; her deep respect for the work women do; her devotion to her family; and her commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment.

“There is a rich amount of material for an actor to work with,” said MacDonald.

While pointing out that no one could really “play” Erma but Erma herself, “You want to gather as much as you can to bring to life such a fascinating woman, MacDonald said. “Then, you synthesize all that information and, hopefully, come up with your own Erma, true to her and true to yourself.”

Director Terry Berliner is also no stranger to Bombeck’s writing. “Erma Bombeck has always been part of my life. I do not know a world without her. Her stories showed me the importance of perspective, the power of a good story, and the significance of capturing the truth,” she said by email.

Although Bombeck was the epitome of a woman’s voice being heard across America at her time, she was written off by many for that very reason – because she was a woman in a man’s world. Playwright twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, who primarily work as reporters, co-wrote “At Wit’s End” to amplify that voice and garner the acclaim they believe she deserves.

“She was the most widely read columnist in the history of the country, yet she never won the Pulitzer Prize and is rarely mentioned in journalism schools,” the Engels said in an interview. “Most likely, her subject matter – families and children – was not considered as important as the thoughts of political pundits. Yet she chronicled a very important transformation in the lives of ordinary women in this country.”

MacDonald hopes the play will be “just the tip of Iceberg Erma” and that audiences will leave with a curiosity to reread her work, to learn more about her life, and to reconsider her place in American humor.

On a more visceral level, she also hopes “folks will find some relief, in these strange days, with laughter. It feels good to laugh.”

The play will be available virtually throughout its run. For access or in-house tickets, visit mrt.org/ERMA. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located at 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, is requiring all guests to show proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test and to wear masks at all times in the building. To learn more about the COVID policy, visit mrt.org/covid.

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