Metro Weekly

A Woman Speaks: Arena Stage’s “At Wit’s End” (review)

"At Wit's End" is a light-heart time capsule of Erma Bombeck's work, but there's little behind the laughter

Barbara-Chisholm as Erma Bombeck - Photo: C.-Stanley Photography

Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck – Photo: C. Stanley Photography

We’ve come a long way since the days of Erma Bombeck’s candidly comic newspaper column on the trials and tribulations of motherhood. Down-in-the-trenches mothering blogs are now just a click away, chattering into the ether day in and day out. They are earnest, funny, snarky or defiant, and there is pretty much one for every mother’s experience of, as Bombeck put it, the world’s second oldest profession. At this point in the Internet age, there can’t be a woman out there who feels like she is the only one kicking a path through a sea of toys with a squalling baby on her hip.

But there is also little doubt that Bombeck paved the way for much of the American experience of the tell-all approach to mother-sharing. And that is perhaps one of the biggest points playwrights (and sisters) Allison and Margaret Engel make in their one-woman play At Wit’s End (starstar) on the columnist and sometime-activist. As Bombeck tells us, it came as a great surprise after starting her column to receive so many letters from women amazed and relieved to discover they weren’t the only ones struggling with the chaos of running a household. And that, in reality, no one was actually living like the women in the ubiquitous Mad Men–era ads: smiling in pearls and heels as they vacuumed a spotless, orderly house. In that sense, Bombeck’s column was, for its time, a very real and meaningful cultural revelation.

And gaining popularity as it did in the midst of the early seventies’ feminist wave, the playwrights Engel also touch upon Bombeck’s decision to canvas the States for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. But, like much that is shared here — whether it be Bombeck’s background, aspirations or deeper feelings about her husband and children — we don’t learn all that much beyond the basic facts of her involvement.

Without a more penetrating treatment of what motivated this women and what her life was really like, this piece consigns itself to being a fan-pleaser. Despite a few somber moments, it is essentially a comical trip down memory lane for the women who took comfort and joy from Bombeck’s weekly affirmation of the ambivalences and humor inherent in motherhood. Her story may be given enough color to bring nods from her audience, but in no way does it get in the way of the main goal here: a sardonic running commentary on family life with a lot of amusing, sometimes clever, one-liners.

And this raises a conundrum with Barbara Chisholm’s performance in the title role. She is engaging, charismatic and has the energy and timing to slice and dice at Bombeck’s pace. She also looks, acts and sounds like a housewife of a certain era. But anyone familiar with Bombeck’s “voice” as a writer or TV appearances will not see Bombeck in this portrayal. It is not that one wants an impersonation in a biographical role — it is about expressing some connection of spirit, intellect and outlook. There is no effort here to capture the cadence of Bombeck’s voice, her quietly confident expressiveness, the intelligence behind her eyes.

It is a buck that ultimately stops with director David Esbjornson and perhaps he decided on principle that there is no point trying to conjure the essence of another human being. Whatever the reason, the distance between the two women is something of an ongoing distraction despite the fact that he and Chisholm envision and create a very real — if very different — person.

It also reflects on the Engels for not doing a whole lot more than what in many ways boils down to delivering Bombeck as a stand-up comic. Put another way, when you find yourself marking time between the comic grenades, you know something is underdeveloped. Of course, not everything in the theater has to be high art and perhaps the Engels simply set themselves a modest goal and stuck to it.

The bottom line is that this is an ideal (and not overly long) evening for someone who will enjoy a mainly light-hearted perusal of this particular time capsule and its occupant. And for those who may be along for the ride and have no idea who Bombeck is or was, the good news is that her comedy travels not just time but also marital and parental status.

At Wit’s End runs to November 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC. Tickets start at $55. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.

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