That ’70s show

ATC’s latest production celebrates the era of Erma Bombeck.

Photo by Tim Fuller
Jeanne Paulsen in Arizona Theatre Company’s Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.

How dear.

Perhaps this is damning with faint praise, which is certainly the weight this little tag often carries. And indeed, it's what comes to mind while sitting in the audience of Arizona Theatre Company's Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End, chuckling at comment after crafted comment from the mind of the long-time syndicated columnist (or "syndicated communist," as one of her children announced to his class at school).

In good-natured but unapologetic straight talk about the trials of the American housewife in the '70s and beyond, Bombeck endeared herself to millions who grabbed the daily newspaper to get their fix. The likes of her had not been seen before, nor has it been since, for that matter. She chronicled a time of housewifery, when the always tired and sometimes lonely but amazingly creative and strong-arm keeper of all things domestic did her job with perfection, or so it was to seem. Bombeck opened the curtains and allowed us to peak at what really went on in those subdivisions in the age of burgeoning families and the carefully ordered roles of mom and dad.

She did it with great wit expressed from a non-assuming, self-effacing, open-hearted wife-and-mom whose office consisted of a typewriter on a TV tray next to a bed. She zinged with humor and good-natured criticism and celebrated what was to become a dying breed. She also hung out with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, infusing a lightness into an often darkly perceived political tsunami of demands that human rights be legally guaranteed to women. (That demand, expressed in the Equal Rights Amendment, has yet to be attached to the U.S. Constitution.)

ATC's production of the play by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel is quite entertaining, but there's no getting around that the script is slight. It's really stand-up comedy given a big set and design elements to make it look like a play. 

The jokes come fast and furious. Bombeck never lacked subjects that could be filtered through her wit. And she saw humor everywhere, even in the most personal of places.

She scorned the term "housewife": "Why would a woman marry a house? The whole thing is ridiculous." And, "God created man. I could have done a better job." "What doesn't kill you comes back two days later and tries again," she declares. "I never met a woman who would miss lunch to have an affair."

You should see At Wit's End, even if there is no real plot being played out, nor a deeply insightful biography. You should see it because actress Jeanne Paulson gives a pretty perfect performance as Bombeck. Paulson's characterization of the humorist is a seamless wonder, and she gives us a Bombeck that feels pure and clear and contains not one moment in which it feels like the actress is somehow commenting on her subject, editing her. She never strays even just slightly outside the the truth of her. We are fortunate to see some fine performances from very good actors in these parts, but this one is special. It's hard to describe why, but if you see it, you'll get it. 

Paulson's performance really makes the play much better than it is. 

Jo Winiarski's set (featuring those brash Howard Johnson colors) and Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting provides a spot on playground for Erma's antics. Costumer Kish Finnegan has her in '70s housewife uniform: shirtwaist dress, worn white Ked's, even with those little footie socks with a decorative fluff ball sticking out the back. Donning an apron from time to time, or her husband's shirt to illustrate a point, Erma alway looks the part.

Much credit goes to director Casey Stangl who has helped Paulson get the most out of a scene, and has crafted a carefully wrought 70 minutes an audience can't help but like. (I'm intrigued by number of new plays that seem to be getting shorter and shorter. What's with that?)

At Wit's End gives us little more than a giant Tupperware container of bons mots and a crock pot full of nostalgia. There's even an exhibit in the lobby full of mementoes of a yesteryear most of us can connect with. And that's at least worth the two cents Erma borrowed from her penny loafers to put together the funds so her kids could go to McDonalds.

And there's that performance. Thank you. And come back soon.

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