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Jennifer Poliskie. Photo: Stage on Spring
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End
By Allison & Margaret Engel
Directed by J.R. Stuart
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
More and more I find myself viewing so much theatre in the context of mid-20th-century sensibility. Watching this production of Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End it happened again, and I started to wonder if it isn’t simply a phenomenon of humankind’s introspective nature that we are always looking back to the middle of the previous century. Culturally, the American Western as a genre could be said to have peaked in the first part of the 1900’s, and a reevaluation of the Civil War occurs in the same period. How important, it seems, to understand ourselves by looking back a couple of generations.
Erma Bombeck (1927–1996) was a humorist who wrote about the experience of being a “housewife” in post-WWII America, a Baby Boomer mother who gave voice to the pre-Feminist woman. It is an archetype that paved the way for the Women’s Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s: dedicated to raising a family but with a self-examination of issues that led to the campaign for the failed Equal Rights Amendment. Bombeck was a highly vocal advocate for the ERA, a middle-class activist trying to use humor to change the world. Her influence came from a column that, at its peak, was published in more than 900 newspapers – where we used to keep up with daily events before the internet. In 1967 she published her first collection of those columns, At Wit’s End, from which Allison and Margaret Engel take their title.
It is easy to think of this show as safe, wholesome entertainment, and there is certainly nothing to offend. Bombeck’s wit was sharp enough to keep the material from being banal, and the authors carefully cherry-pick her observations to shape a biographical narrative that moves with a light touch even as it reaches themes of melancholy and mortality. For all of the funny business, there are several passages that recognize the challenge and work of marriage and parenting and, in one particularly bracing moment, Bombeck bravely confronts a pending surgery by staring at her naked body in a mirror. It is worth noting that the incidence of breast cancer for women rose dramatically in Bombeck’s lifetime.
As Bombeck, Jennifer Poliskie bares no flesh in playing that scene, but she captures the fear and anguish with great certainty. After the early moments of chirpy, comedic observations shot across the stage like a champion archer, the transitions to the more somber moments are so well-judged in their observation and so fluidly executed that we must count Ms. Poliskie’s performance a tour de force. If your expectation for this show was to encounter a superficial comedy, the script and this performance both deliver more than that.
All the more remarkable since the play is a one-act clocking in at just over 60 minutes, but the writers don’t waste words and cover a lot of ground with great economy. I feel certain that Erma would approve.
The production design is smart in capturing the period, but it is also relatively spare because Jennifer Poliskie is the show. The lighting (by Brad Murphy) also does subtle work, and all of it reflects the good taste and intelligence that are always found in J.R. Stuart’s work as a director. As the audience departed the space afterward, he could be heard to describe Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End as a “sweet” show. Far be it for me to argue with Mr. Stuart, but in his and Ms. Poliskie’s hands, it is much more. Lesser talents would have undoubtedly found the easy laughs but perhaps fumbled the pathos in ham-handed fashion. This show doesn’t miss a laugh, yet it is the delicacy with which it handles the rest that will resonate.
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End
July 25-30 @ 8:00pm.
For reservations call/text (502) 380-6569.
Tickets are $10 cash/check at the door.
All proceeds benefit St. Marks Soup Kitchen.
Stage on Spring at St Marks UCC
222 E Spring St
New Albany, Indiana 47150
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.