BWW Review: ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT'S END at the Hanover Tavern: Her Hilarious Observations Still Merit Attention (And Gasping Guffaws) After All Of These Years...
By admission, Erma Bombeck's cultural influence on the typical American family from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s was marginally removed from my personal scope (she died when I was only 11). Thus my knowledge of her and the substantive impact of her socially-intuitive newspaper column was lacking when I sat down to view ERMA BOMBECK: AT Wit's End.
Yet thanks to this show being serviced by a crackerjack artistic team, Ms. Bombeck and her cogent witticisms on being a wife and mother (and eventual feminist icon) went on to resonate with me in a rather serendipitous manner of fruition.
Upon entering the theater to sit myself down, BJ Wilkinson's warm and welcoming lights were already illuminating Terrie Powers' delightfully retro-looking set. The setting was a juxtaposition of a "not too distant" past, featuring a suburban kitchenette, a dinette set, a master bedroom, a sitting room with a swivel chair, and a foyer. Moreover, the space was complemented with built-in bookshelves containing the actual books Bombeck used to help inspire her career (including hardback editions of her own authored works).
With these choice design components in place, a curiously nostalgic and personal feeling began to seize my attention...
But I slightly digressed when the show began and Catherine Shaffner appeared.
And within a matter of seconds into her first lines of dialogue (much of which were transcribed word-for-word from Bombeck's prose by playwrights Allison and Margaret Engel), Ms. Shaffner disappeared into Erma.
With exacting grace and lilting precision to every single line, Ms. Shaffner fully embodied the "at home" familiarity of a character who simply felt like a close relative - and a loud and uproarious one at that!
And as I watched Shaffner navigate herself through this autobiographical feat, I began to somewhat inexplicably ruminate over my formative years as a child. It was a weird direction to take, but I suddenly thought to myself, "Wow. This whole show feels like a Reader's Digest come to life!"
For those who don't know: Reader's Digest, fast-approaching 100 years in circulation, is a magazine that features a variety of entries which include (among many offerings) food and drink recipes, home and gardening tips, celebrity interviews, games and puzzles, short and/or lengthy stories, and op-eds...
These op-eds included articles composed by Erma Bombeck herself. She wrote for Reader's Digest for years!
And upon the realization of this wistful connection to my past with a quick "Google Search," I chuckled once again...
When I was a toddler, I would often stay at my maternal grandparents' house nearby in Westham off Patterson Avenue when both of my parents worked days (this was especially prevalent in the summertime). Now for years (going into decades), in this one story house, the only reading material dutifully positioned in either of its two bathrooms was new editions of... Reader's Digest.
Reader's Digest, simply out of boredom and proximity, unquestionably (and amusingly) helped teach me how to read. And I'm not a puzzles' guy.
Now, while I can't recall reading one of Erma Bombeck's specific contributions in those now-years' old editions, I think that, were she alive today, her comedic sensibilities would undoubtedly find this factual tidbit of mine to be quaintly droll (though I'm all but certain that my grandparents were hardly the only people to keep Reader's Digest in such a personal place).
Given this admittedly-protracted bit of sentimentality, I can honestly say that few shows have elicited such a specific emotional response from me. I thank director John Moon and his team for that.
And apart from Shaffner's landmark performance, further accolades go to Derek Dumais' simpatico sound design, with the assistance of lightning-fast cues from stage manager Izzy Kainz who takes over responsibilities begun by Joe Pabst.
In closing: I'd suggest that those of the younger persuasion treat their grandparents to this, an amiable trip down memory lane that both generations should find very funny. This show is also family-friendly.
I only wish that my maternal grandparents were still with us so that I could mutually partake in this gesture.
ERMA BOMBECK: AT Wit's End plays at the Virginia Repertory Theatre's Hanover Tavern through April 29th.