Laughing at one’s own misfortunes can be a freeing experience. “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” offers proof. Written by sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, the play gives a humorous and realistic glimpse into the life of Bombeck, the late newspaper columnist and best-selling humorist. The show depicts how Bombeck turned her everyday trials and tribulations as a housewife into a career as a self-made author and syndicated journalist. It will debut in Wilmington February 5-9, 13-16 and 20-23 at the Cape Fear Playhouse, courtesy of Big Dawg Productions.
An influential voice from the mid-’60s to the late 1990s, Bombeck hooked the attention of female audiences across the nation by asking the now-famous question, “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?” She became an icon for breaking from the image of the subdued, subordinated “stepford wife,” popularized in the 1950s and ‘60s, with her syndicated column “At Wit’s End.” The column appeared in over 900 newspapers. She also authored 12 books, nine of which were New York Times’ bestsellers.
By the 1980s Bombeck had become a household name that unified women across the country—so much so her column ran for years after her death in 1996. Through her writing, she broke down the lofty and often ridiculous expectations put on women. She discussed the not-so-glamorous aspects of being a wife and mother, while also maintaining a career. She was able to capture what oftentimes is left unspoken: the truth.
The one-woman show lasts just over an hour and stars Holli Saperstein as Bombeck. The local actress, director and Panache Theatrical Productions founder is used to taking the stage alone: She previously played another beloved media personality, Doctor Ruth Westheimer, in Big Dawg’s production of “Becoming Doctor Ruth” in 2016, for which she won the StarNews’ Wilmington Theatre Award for Best Actress.
“A one person show is of course challenging due to the fact you are carrying this show by yourself,” she says. “This can be pretty daunting.”
Saperstein is no stranger to Bombeck, having met the late author twice. The first time came at an awards banquet in Phoenix, Arizona as a child, where she was receiving a Girl Scouts award and Bombeck was a keynote speaker. “I remember how nervous I was meeting her,” Saperstein recalls. “My mother and so many women at the time loved Erma.”
She met her again at age 19. “I was selling Tupperware,” Saperstein says, “No joke. She was the keynote speaker at a conference for Tupperware ladies. I spoke to her after and told her how much I admired her words. And I was still nervous.”
Years later, stepping into the columnist’s famous printed apron, Saperstein says she identifies with Bombeck’s desire for self-expression. “Whenever we speak, we try to convey something we want or need. Each character has that need. As far as Erma goes, she wanted to show that all of our lives are a little crazy, nobody is perfect, few are exceptional and we just need to find our voice.”
Directing Saperstein in the play is Big Dawg Productions’ artistic director Steve Vernon. Like Saperstein, Vernon has a personal connection to the show’s subject: He’s been a fan since his preteen years, when he read his mother’s copy of Bombeck’s book “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.” When his mother discovered how much he enjoyed it, she suggested other titles for him to read, as well as Bombeck’s newspaper columns.
“She would have me read my favorite passages to her,” Vernon recalls. “It may sound like an odd bonding point between a mother and son, but Erma Bombeck was something that she and I shared with each other—a way for us to connect, and most importantly a way for us to show each other what it looked like when we laughed, which was a beautiful thing.”
Vernon’s decision to cast Saperstein was a no-brainer: “She’s a gifted storyteller, and audiences seem to relate with her. It made sense for me to ask her to come along for the ride.”
Saperstein performed her first show with Big Dawg nearly a decade ago; she has acted in several plays and sits on the board of directors. She and Vernon sought to depict Bombeck as she actually was, not just as her column portrayed her to be. While much of Bombeck’s life was lived in public due to the nature of her work, the pair wanted to humanize Erma and incorporate the personal side of her that was often unseen. Vernon states, “I want [the audience] to see an iconic figure for who [she was] as a person.”
While the play is presented as a comedy, it also contains surprising depth. Vernon praises its poignancy, in message and in connectivity to family and relationships. It also deals with mortality.
“There’s a great deal paid to Erma joining the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA),” he tells, “as well as her struggle against those who thought she was ‘not feminist enough’ and also those that thought she was ‘too feminist.’”
While Erma often left politics out of her columns, behind the scenes she was an activist, closely involved in the fight for the ERA. She was able to transfer her indomitable spirit and wit into the fight for equal rights, earning a position on the President’s National Advisory Committee for Women.
Besides Vernon’s personal admiration for Erma as a woman who changed the image of mothers across America, he also wants to give the audience the opportunity to laugh, just as Erma did. “We all need to laugh more. That was Erma’s strongest quality, her ability to connect people with one another through sharing laughter.”