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ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT’S END at Shea’s 710 Theatre leaves audience wanting more

THE BASICS: ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT’S END, a one-woman show about the beloved newspaper columnist, written by twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, directed by Mark Cuddy, starring Pam Sherman opened its short run November 5 and goes to November 10. No show on Wednesday, it picks up again Thursday November 7 at 7:30, Friday at 8, Saturday at both 2 and 8, and Sunday at 2 at Shea’s 710 Theatre, 710 Main Street at Tupper (1-800-745-3000). Runtime: a little under an hour

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Actor, playwright, columnist, and book author herself, Pam Sherman has returned to play the role of Erma Bombeck after a sold out and twice extended run last season at the Geva Theatre Center in her hometown of Rochester. Sherman’s own book, The Suburban Outlaw: Tales from the EDGE, has been described as “a funny, touching, and ironic look at life in suburbia.” One could use those very words to describe any of the ultimately 4,000+ published “At Wit’s End” columns by Erma Bombeck (1927-1996) which ultimately appeared in 900 newspapers from the mid-1960s to the 1990s. It could also be said of Erma Bombeck’s dozen books including If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?, The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, and, the same title as her column and the current play, At Wit’s End. The play is accessible to everyone, but of course should appeal more to any woman or any daughter of a woman who read newspapers back in the late 20th century. In other words, CALL YOUR MOTHER AND TAKE HER TO THIS SHOW. You’ll both love it.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: While it may have been opening night for the current run at Shea’s 710, actor Pam Sherman is an old hand at this one-woman show. Her timing is spot-on, knowing how to deliver the punch lines naturally and waiting for the laughter to subside without appearing to wait for the laughter to subside. The content, pacing, and delivery were the same as any modern stand-up comedy routine.

But it becomes much more than stand-up with set (Sam Holderlein), costume (Casey McNamara), lighting (Derek Madonia) and props created by the original Geva Theatre Center production. Sherman effortlessly works her way around the stage which holds a kitchen table and counter, bed, and easy chair, while dealing with various unseen family members (her husband, her children, her mother) all the while handling such props as an apron and pearls (at the same time, yes, this was the post-WWII late 1950’s / early 60s); steam iron, ironing board, and clothes to iron; answering the doorbell and running the vacuum cleaner with the best SFX (Dan Roach, Sound Designer) I’ve ever heard. It all flowed effortlessly thanks to Susan Stimson, Stage Manager.

One particularly impressive bit of theater involved Bombeck talking about protecting her mother, unseen but represented by a white cardigan sweater draped over the back of a chair, who then puts on the same sweater, becoming herself an older mother now protected by her own younger daughter. Very sweet.

Just as actor Pam Sherman is an old hand at this role, it’s not the first such play for twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, graduates of, respectively, Stanford and Harvard Universities who each had separate reporting careers in various cities at various newspapers. They had previously co-written the play RED HOT PATRIOT: THE KICK-ASS WIT OF MOLLY IVINS based on the life and writings of Texas political columnist Molly Ivins. We’re talking about some very smart people.

Most folks have a vague memory of Bombeck (it has been about 25 years since her last column) as a humorist wryly commenting on suburban life, but Allison and Margaret Engel bring out the darker side of what Bombeck was telling us. While Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” Bombeck was aware that the mass of suburban housewives were, literally, married to a house, set far apart from other houses, and assigned so many tasks of housekeeping and child-rearing, that in the loud chaos they weren’t supposed to have time or energy to reflect on their lonely isolation.

The play serves as a call to action as Bombeck remembers hearing feminist Betty Friedan speak and at first taking offense but later joining Friedan on speaking tours to get states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

And the play serves as a call to action as Bombeck remembers hearing feminist Betty Friedan speak and at first taking offense but later joining Friedan on speaking tours to get states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It was, and still is today, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. The 19th Amendment (Women’s Suffrage) will celebrate 100 years next August. The Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in Congress in December 1923, has never been ratified.

So, all in all, this is a pretty good night at the theater. I wish that it had been longer than 50+ minutes. That’s short even for a one-person show and at $44 per ticket a 75-minute show would have seemed like a better deal. Also, as appreciated as the Friedan/ERA sequence was, and mindful that Bombeck’s genius was not in hitting people over the head but bringing them to understanding through laughter, the evening would have been more theatrical with better dramatic arc. I wish that the play had dug a little deeper into the women of “The Greatest Generation” whose lives were so proscribed.

UP NEXT: MusicalFare brings their last year’s sold-out holiday musical CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN from the suburbs to Shea’s 710 Theatre December 5 through December 22. At the nearby Shea’s Smith Theatre Second Generation Theatre is wrapping up their run of the critically acclaimed THE TOXIC AVENGER. Later this month at Shea’s Smith O’Connell & Company presents A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE from November 29 through December 8. And at the large Shea’s Buffalo Theatre there is a wide variety of entertainment including two short runs of popular Broadway shows JERSEY BOYS November 15 – 17 and LES MISERABLES December 10 – 15, and, among many, many other short engagements, THE NUTCRACKER BALLET November 30-December 1.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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