"If a woman is ever to have an affair, it will be in March," columnist Erma Bombeck wrote in 1970. "Psychologically, it is a perfect month. The bowling tournaments are over. The white sales on bedding are past. Your chest cold has stabilized and the Avon lady is beginning to look like Tom Jones."
Those words demonstrate Bombeck's style. Caustic to a fault, her writing about the struggles of American mothers was alive with cynical wit and suggested that if you acquiesced to patriarchal rule, the least you could do was be grumpy about it. Words were her weapon in the war for gender equality, a battle she also fought by campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Bombeck bursts to life in Triangle Productions' Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End, a filmed play directed by Triangle's executive director, Don Horn, a brilliant biographical storyteller. He created the moving and delightful 2019 musical Darcelle: That's No Lady, and At Wit's End is even more welcome because it offers wise and witty entertainment during a pandemic. It also stars AM Northwest host Helen Raptis, a performer whose charisma transcends the limits of TV and computer screens.
At Wit's End, written by twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, begins with Bombeck asking, "How did I end up in suburbia?" The rest of the play is her answer. In an hour-plus monologue delivered from her home, she takes us on a tour of her life. Kids, work, cancer, activism, politics…it's all here, along with plenty of Bombeckian gags. (Of her time writing obituaries, she says, "You try getting all those people to die in alphabetical order.")
Wearing a butter-yellow apron, Raptis looks like an archetypal homemaker, but what matters most is that she finds truth in every facet of Bombeck's personality. You believe her when she makes a mordant joke ("I have never met a woman who'd give up her lunch for sex"), and when she reveals vulnerable sincerity ("well, I can assure you there was love in every line I wrote").
Shot at Triangle's longtime home, The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza, some scenes lack finesse (a few props, including Erma's vacuum cleaner, are unnecessarily loud), yet it is elegantly and effectively filmed. The play shifts between wide shots that dramatize the isolation of Erma's domestic kingdom and close-ups that allow us to feel the empathy and defiance that drive her.
After I watched At Wit's End, I started speculating about its place in Erma Bombeck's life. Bombeck died of complications of a kidney transplant in 1996, which makes you wonder if Erma is speaking to us from beyond the grave. Is the suburban home in the play supposed to be her personal heaven? Hell? Both?
I ask because Erma's relationship with her children, who are represented by offstage voices, gave me pause. As written by the Engels, Erma believes that a parent's first duty is to dominate, lecture and control. She has a lot to say about saying no, but next to nothing to say about learning what her children want from life and listening to their hearts.
By serendipity or design, At Wit's End emerges as an implicit critique of an outdated school of parenting that mistakes discipline for compassion and kindness for weakness—a school of parenting to which Erma enthusiastically subscribes. Near the end of the play, she even seems to acknowledge her shortcomings by confessing, "If I had my life to live over, I would have talked less and listened more."
Those words have weight, but so do Erma's triumphs. Throughout the play, we see her typewriter perched on her ironing board, a juxtaposition that symbolizes the two worlds she straddles. At Wit's End honors the strength it takes to succeed at home and at work. It's a tale of two Ermas, both of whom experience exultation when they hear the words that come to define their existence: "You. Can. Write."
SEE IT: Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End streams at fiveohm.tv/triangle-productions/at-wits-end through Saturday, Feb. 13. $15.