by Betsy Labiner
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End at the Arizona Theatre Company is a celebration of women and women’s work at both the personal and national scale, from the unsung to the celebrated. Fittingly, the one-woman play comes to audiences thanks in large part to women. Erma Bombeck is written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, is directed by Casey Stangl, has scenic design by Jo Winiarski, costume design by Kish Finnegan, lighting design by Jaymi Lee Smith, and Rachel Berney Needleman as dramaturg. The play is a triumph of their work alongside that of Erma Bombeck.
Erma Bombeck was a humor columnist whose work focused on her life as a suburban housewife; her column was immensely popular and was eventually syndicated in 900 newspapers. In addition, she wrote 15 books, appeared on Good Morning America, and served on the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women.
Jeanne Paulsen is absolutely brilliant as Bombeck. Her comedic timing is impeccable, as she delivers one-liner after one-liner with wry smiles and knowing nods. She formed an immediate rapport with the audience, leaning in to the moments of sustained laughter and creating an emotionally charged space in which the audience hung eagerly on her every word. Paulsen’s physical comedy brought laughs as well, as she engages with every aspect of the set’s – a nostalgia-charged 1960s home, complete with laundry on the bed and children’s art on the refrigerator – domestic space. Paulsen is alone onstage for the entirety of the play, but her interactions with invisible family members and disembodied voices create the feel of a happily crowded home. Paul James Prendergast’s sound design bolsters Paulsen’s work by creating effects such as children talking over one another and shouting down a hallway.
“You don’t mind if I do two things at once, do you?” Paulsen asks as she begins working on chores, one of many moments underscoring the duality of Bombeck’s work as a mother and as a writer. Bombeck’s writing is simultaneously in competition with and dependent on her role as a housewife; this is perhaps best embodied by the moment in which she moves laundry aside and sets up her typewriter on the ironing board.
The play is generally lighthearted, but also delves into bittersweet and sad musings. Paulsen navigates these emotional turns well, drawing the audience into shared contemplation on frustration and heartbreak before breaking the tension with a quip. “If you can laugh at it,” she assures the audience, “you can live with it.” Some of the themes – marriage, parenthood, loss – are timeless. Other themes – feminism, social change, and activism – feel altogether timely. Bombeck’s work to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, reminds us that change remains an uphill battle, and that the fight for equality is still not over. (Note: the ERA is still unratified; Arizona is among the states that has not ratified it.)
This play is equally for fans of Bombeck and those unfamiliar with her work. Bombeck’s humor delights whether this is one’s first experience with it or not, and the play offers insights into her background and life that amplify and nuance the comedy. The play also appeals to audiences across ages and genders, though I suspect that women with children will find themselves connecting with it particularly strongly.
Erma Bombeck is a night of comedy theatre that you won’t want to miss.
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End runs through November 10th at the Arizona Theatre Company. Tickets may be purchased at https://arizonatheatre.org/.