3/24/2019 ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT'S END Aurora Theatre
****½ ( A )
If any of all y'all read my columns regularly, you may have noticed that, when I'm writing about plays with a family (dys)function theme, I refer to family ties as "the ties that bind and gag." Those with a taste for "sniffing our plagiarism" (and I freely confess to supplying plenty of grist for that particular obsessive mill) will recognize that as a direct steal from the title of a 1987 Erma Bombeck book, Family -- The Ties That Bind ... and Gag! My constantly rationalizing mind tells me, "Well, Doof, you're changing the punctuation, so it's not a direct copy," with a constant bass-line throb of "Fair Use! Fair Use! Fair Use!" keeping both time and harmony.
So it should come as no surprise that I have been a fan of Ms. Bombeck's writings since her columns began appearing in whatever suburban newspaper I happened to read. (For the benefit of my younger readers, "newspapers" were old-timey doo-dadgers that carried "words" one had to decipher, "words" that helped you learn about the doings of the day. Some of the time, they did not even require you to form an opinion.)
And it should also come as no surprise that I really and truly adored Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End, a one-act monologue about Bombeck's life and work, now in Aurora Theatre's black box space.
Once again, to cater to my younger readers, let me explain Erma Bombeck. She was a brilliant humorist and columnist who flourished from the late sixties through the early nineties, penning countless columns and books
about family, parenthood, and Ohio suburbia. Her columns were all about surviving your kids ("Insanity is indeed hereditary. You get it from your kids."), your marriage ("We had everything in common. Well, the things that really mattered. We both chewed only a half a stick of gum and saved the other half."), and the relative importance of the everyday details of living from day to day ("In 1969, a man walked on the moon. Big deal! That same year I found a pair of gym shoes that would make my son jump higher than a basketball hoop. "). She also was active in the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (following a "dressing down" from Betty Friedan), a choice that (allegedly) had some conservative book store owners dropping her (many) published collections. (In response to a small-town mayor asking why she wanted to "destroy the American family" and why she won't just "go home and have children," she responded "I already did that, and now they're old enough to vote against you.") he women did not mince words. Just shallots.
Sadly, she also struggled with health issues throughout her life, fighting against breast cancer and kidney disease, which eventually led to daily dialysis and led to her death in 1996, a year shy of her 70th birthday.
So, At Wit's End. The title is taken from the collection of her columns published in 1967, her first best seller. Playwrights Allison and Margaret Engel (Journalists -- and twins -- who also collaborated on The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins) have compiled a fans-wallow of Bombeck quotes and stories that (more or less) tell the story of her life (as "told by the lady herself"), setting her in a suburban setting that may (or may not) reflect Bombeck's own home. They have Ms. Bombeck welcome us as guests in her home, regaling us with wit and wisdom as she does her daily chores (essentially how she wrote her columns for years). Lane Carlock plays Ms. Bombeck with a warmth that is positively contagious, keeping us constantly smiling (if not laughing from the recognizable heart). Director Megan Rose-Houchins keeps her storyteller constantly on the move, constantly tidying the set, constantly making sure everyone in the three-sided audience gets equal attention and focus. Sure, a basket of laundry in the bedroom remains stubbornly unsorted, unfolded, but SOMETHING has to be left for after we leave.
And, throughout the 80 rapid-fire minutes of our visit, we come to know Erma Bombeck as a friend, a mentor, and a champion for writing, for motherhood, and, most assuredly, for women. When all is said and dome (and the resulting quiet is yet to take root), this is the perfect companion piece to Stage Door's production of Kathleen Clark's Secrets of a Soccer Mom, since both deal with the agonies and ecstasies of raising families, of embracing the chaos that is the driving force of family. Remember? Those are the ties that bind and gag.
And, for the record, the grass isn't really greener over the septic tank (it's usually dead from the maintenance guys), the pits are the most fertile part of the bowl of cherries, and the best parts of life usually start when the post-natal depression has had its say and gone on is way. I have no evidence, but I suspect Ms. Bombeck would semi-sorta agree. A bit. Even as she smiles at the gentle irony of the Dayton OH house in which she raised her family (along with its septic tank, I presume) being added to the "National Register of Historic Places." .
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ATWitsEnd)