Within the hierarchy of art, there are creators whose work gets tremendous credit and praise—frequently as innovators, often as craftspeople. Then there are artists whose work people actually connect with and purchase. For all the weight that Fellini’s name might carry as a filmmaker, more people in modern America have seen and had their lives impacted by the work of Steven Spielberg. The written medium is no different: For all that Pynchon or Barthelme are praised, in reality Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult have been read by more people and have left a lasting impact on their lives. Someone I have long thought of as a stealth super heroine of the written word is Erma Bombeck.
“I never really read her stuff,” Jock commented in the car on the way to Big Dawg Productions’ season opener, “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.” The one-woman show, staring Holli Saperstein, was put together by Margaret and Allison Engel, who also adapted a show about the late newspaper columnist Molly Ivins. “You weren’t her target market,” I pointed out.
As a person who spent almost 15 years as a single parent, Jock would have connected with a lot of Bombeck’s writing. Indeed, as Saperstein took the audience through the emotional highs and lows of family life, he nodded his head along with her. When she referenced one of Bombeck’s most famous columns, “I Loved You Enough,” about letting your children have the character-building experiences you would rather shield them from but are essential to becoming functional people, he had tears in his eyes.
I should say up front: I love Bombeck’s writing. I started reading her in late elementary school when my mother handed me a column about the three different children who live in one house: The first child has everything they touch perfectly sterilized, and even wears hand-smocked dresses. By the third kid, if you hose them down in the yard, it qualifies as a bath. As an only child (read: the first with everything she touched sterilized and hand-smocked dresses), I was fascinated by this idea of parental relaxation, which my mother clarified was exhaustion—not relaxation.
Though Bombeck’s columns were humorous looks at family life, especially in suburbia, they carried a lot of truth and quietly made the point that the world of the stay-at-home mom gets largely ignored and taken for granted. It’s a job that actually requires a skill set beyond the comprehension of a military strategist.
When I was younger and working my way through Bombeck’s books, I saw the humor in her work, but I didn’t see my mother. Like Bombeck’s children, whose antics appeared so often in her work, I didn’t yet see everything my mother juggled for me and for our family. If anything, I walked out of the theatre after Saperstein’s performance feeling like I got a chance to visit with the friend my mother promised to become in my adult life.
Donna Troy put together an incredible and detailed set of a mid-century suburban home. I particularly liked the kitchen area, complete with an exhaust hood for the stove. Framed children’s art was on the walls, and just like my parents’ bedroom, an ironing board was set up at the end of the bed with a neverending laundry and ironing rotation. The only thing missing was the stationary bike, used to hang ironing-in-progress rather than exercise. Then Saperstein walked onstage. I caught my breath. She was dressed like my mother, complete with the haircut my mom got when I was about 4 months old and had for the rest of her life. Visually, it was uncanny.
Saperstein is no stranger to the demands and challenges of a one-person show. Wilmington audiences will remember her tour de force in the one-woman show “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” about the famous sex therapist. This is an unusual script because, in pieces, it dramatizes Bombeck’s columns—like the opening sequence of trying to get a household of kids off to school in the morning (ending with mom enjoying a candy bar she had hidden so no one else would eat it). Other pieces of the script are like stand-up comedy, complete with rapid fire one-liners. Then there are more personal, biographical moments, like when she talks about her father dying when she was a child.
One of the terrors of a one-person show is the possibility of getting lost in the script; there is no one to save you and get you back on track. Actors who take on the challenge are alone up there. Saperstein had a rough opening night that included some wandering around the script. But it felt apropos: Saperstein pushed through and finished strong, showing exactly what Bombeck tried to teach her children and write about in her column. I laughed, I cried, and the show left me with a lot to ponder about the consideration I do or do not extend to many people through the course of the day.
“Did you realize she had been so involved with the ERA?” Jock asked me on the way home. I confessed I hadn’t.
The Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution (ERA) proposes, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The proposed amendment to the Constitution was given seven years to be ratified by the states. Bombeck campaigned heavily for it, touring the country along with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, noting she didn’t want any women to die thinking that ERA stood for “Earned Run Average.” It is a timely topic, with the Virginia legislature recently providing enough states to ratify the ERA. Now, three state attorney generals have filed a suit to have the ERA brought to fruition. As they point out, the 27th Amendment took 200 years to be ratified, so the sunset on the ERA should not be binding.
As Bombeck, Saperstein communicates a sense of wonder and amazement that she is on stages and platforms with Abzug and Steinem, let alone asked to serve on President Carter’s Advisory Committee for Women. The lens of small-town girl just trying to get through life (a life, by the way, that has not turned out at all how she expected) permeates Bombeck’s writing and comes through in Saperstein’s depiction clearly.
Valentine’s Day is coming up, which is traditionally seen as a day for romantic love. But the idealized view of romance is absurd, and as Bombeck observes, few women put enough thought into choosing a husband. It might sound like a strange recommendation, but “At Wit’s End” is a beautiful choice for a couple to be reminded why they have pursued together this strange experiment called life and how they have adapted to the changes of family. With humor and grace, “At Wit’s End” reminds us all we are in this together.