Review: MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ a Delightful Breath of Fresh Air

Karen MacDonald as Erma Bombeck in MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Karen MacDonald is nothing short of spectacular in the one-woman show, ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,’ now playing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through March 13. For 80 intermission-less minutes, she doesn’t just play Erma Bombeck; she IS Erma Bombeck, from her impeccable timing to the subtlest gesture and most delicate modulation. Don’t let this one slip away without seeing it. It is a balm of enormous power during these dark tundra days.

That power comes from Bombeck herself, whose simple, perceptive and — most importantly — funny writings are the backbone of the script. It feels so good to just relax, witness a magnificent performance, and laugh.

Daniel Zimmerman’s scenic design sets a perfect table for this theatrical feast. Complete with shag carpet (mustard and chartreuse), mid-century modern furniture and Hoover upright vacuum cleaner, we are instantly transported back to 1960s suburbia. His backdrop creation of a birds eye drone view of a typical neighborhood is as brilliant as it is effective. The effect is like being in a shadow box or viewing a large 3-D cinematic screen turned on its head.

We first meet Erma in her spotless living room, clad in a belted flowered shirtwaist dress, apron, pearls and heels, enjoying a moment’s peace before she starts ironing, vacuuming and folding laundry. MacDonald establishes rapport with the audience before she even utters a word. Yes, she really IS that good an actor.

By the time Erma utters her first line, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. “How,” she asks half in earnest, half rhetorically, “did I end up in suburbia?”

The rest of the monologue traces Erma’s life, from Bellbrook, Ohio to Cherrywood

Orchards community and motherhood to her spectacular career as columnist, book author and nationally sought speaker. Along the way, we are treated to snippets of Erma’s insightful, playful yet always spot-on humor and advice.

A bright woman straddling a line between domestic bliss and oblivion, Erma was a self-described “willing prisoner.” She had her kids early in life and compares the drudgery and workload of stay-at-home motherhood (the second oldest profession) to prostitution (the first), the difference being that mothers don’t get paid.

“I signed up for this life sentence,” she admits (though without, she notes, the usual possibility of parole for good behavior). At the end of the day, however, she offers a one-size-fits-all piece of advice: “If you can laugh at it, you can live with it.”

She escapes her sadness and emptiness by getting back to her writing, which was interrupted by her new role as housewife. She decides to use humor to tell the truth about her life in a column. After her third (and last) child starts kindergarten, she gets started.

Her success is immediate, her popularity taking off like a rocket into space. She goes from one column in a small, local papers to three columns weekly in a syndication of 900 papers nationwide. Yet she never loses sight or grasp of who she is and what her goals are.

“There was love in every line I wrote,” she says. There is also honesty, wit, laughter and pain. Remarkable for their  absence are anger and resentment.

We learn more about how a chance lecture by Betty Friedan launched Erma on her quest to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. She travelled for two years to garner support, writing her columns while on the road. She never missed one deadline during her entire career.

Towards the end of the play, Erma waxes poetic as she wistfully reflects on her career, cancer and waning years. “I was a stay at home mom,” she says. “The key to my writing is I am ordinary. Most of us are unremarkable.”

Although she never won a Pulitzer Prize, she is proud of her columns’ status as “top billing on the refrigerator.” She is such a good sport about everything, rolling with the punches and still harboring no resentment, regrets or complaints. “My plan was to wear out, not rust out,” she admits. “I wrote for me and the other mothers waiting to be recognized. I valued what everyone else took for granted- good old Mom.”

Her final words of advice on staying upbeat through the trials and tribulations of motherhood? “Seize every moment to make a difference,” she urges. “Who wants to live with regrets? Think of all those women on the Titanic who passed up the dessert tray.”

“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.” Written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel. Directed by Terry Berliner; Scenic Design by Daniel Zimmerman; Costume Design by Teresa Snider; Lighting Design by Joel Shier; Sound Design by Scott Stauffer; Original Music Composed by Brett Marcias. Produced by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA through March 13.

For tickets and information, go to: https://mrt.org/

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.