At long last, it is here and I can’t help being thrilled.
When Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) first announced that Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End would be part of MRT’s upcoming season, my heart leapt. Having taken great joy in reading Bombeck’s comical works such as The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits, I had high expectations for this production that ended up being delayed a few times due to Covid.
Sponsored in part by WBUR and intuitively directed by Terry Berliner, Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End virtually and live in-person at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA through March 13. The show is just over one hour with no intermission. Click here for more information and tickets.
Erma Bombeck’s column about life as a housewife made her a household name. She became the most distributed column in America and it is easy to see why. Before I ever grasped the concept of being a housewife, I loved reading Erma Bombeck. As an adult and still not a housewife, I still revel in her sharp and timeless humor. She never misses a beat relating to women everywhere and though her advice dates back as early as the 60s, most of it remains relevant today.
Dan Zimmerman’s intriguing multi-level and colorful set is a relic of a 1960’s house equipped with period kitchen cabinets, dated upholstery, an old phone, and retro household appliances. Joel Shier’s lighting is subtly appealing alongside Scott Stauffer’s charming and well-timed sound effects. Though MacDonald is only present onstage, a supporting cast can be heard that lends to the pacing and a larger sense of realism to the production.
In classic pearls and a blue floral dress, Karen MacDonald as Erma looks the quintessential housewife as she takes the audience from 1962 through 1996. Bombeck longed to be a foreign correspondent and instead became a suburban housewife residing in Cherrywood Acres in Dayton, Ohio. She quipped, ‘I blazed a trail all the way from the laundry room to the sink.’
Allison and Margaret Engel’s screenplay is chock full of clever anecdotes and MacDonald’s warm and inviting presence gradually feels like visiting with an old friend. The quick, peppy, and semi-interactive screenplay is peppered with Bombeck’s astute observations as she shares her remarkable journey to becoming a writer, her zany family life, and gathering her sense of self over the years.
Much like Julia Child of the same generation, Bombeck is self-deprecating in her imperfections and prides herself on honesty. MacDonald slips into Bombeck’s natural and relatable tone comfortably brimming with advice, but never in a ‘know-it-all’ sort of way. A few of her marvelous observational gems include ‘Why take pride in cooking when they don’t take pride in eating?’ or ‘My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance’ or ‘What doesn’t kill you now, comes back a few days later to try again.’
That last piece of advice also resonates with the darker side of Bombeck’s humor. Surprisingly, Erma Bombeck had her share of haters and struggles. However, she proves herself a source of strength and fortitude. Even her most serious reflections and recollections are met with a jovial and contemplative quip. Though the production is considered mostly lighthearted, MacDonald as Erma manages to find humor in pain which is a rare quality indeed.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents Erma Bombeck’s ‘At Wit’s End’ virtually and live in-person at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA through March 13. Click here for more information and tickets.