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Virginia Rep’s “Erma Bombeck: at Wit’s End” Takes on the Legacy of the Famous Humorist 

click to enlarge One of the most engaging actors in town, Catherine Shaffner portrays Erma Bombeck in a one-woman show about the famous humorist.

Aaron Sutten

One of the most engaging actors in town, Catherine Shaffner portrays Erma Bombeck in a one-woman show about the famous humorist.

Just a year after starting her column about being a Midwestern suburban housewife, Erma Bombeck struck it big, becoming syndicated in 36 major publications across the country.

Her popularity would only grow: By the 1970s, Bombeck's column would reach 30 million readers through 900 newspapers; from 1975 through 1986, she would appear regularly on ABC's "Good Morning America." Obviously, Bombeck's challenge to the era's ideal of being a flawless housewife found an audience. With its new play, "Erma Bombeck: at Wit's End," Virginia Repertory Theatre is hoping for a similar fate.

In this one-woman, one-hour show, playwrights Allison and Margaret Engel give us the broad outline of Bombeck's life: her upbringing during the Great Depression, her early newspaper career, giving up journalism for her family and her later success as a humorist. Aimed directly at baby boomer audiences that remember her "At Wit's End" column, the show intends to be a pleasing — if unchallenging — dip into Bombeck's personality.

Punctuated by zippy one-liners like "I've never met a woman who would give up lunch for sex," and "The only reason I would take up jogging is so I could hear heavy breathing again," all the elements for a play are here, but it never quite manages to take shape. Is it supposed to be the comprehensive story of her life? A grab bag of some of her best one-liners formed around a narrative? A series of vignettes in which we watch the idea of a column form in her mind? Sadly, none of these possibilities is explored.

This disappointment has nothing to do with Virginia Rep's staging: in casting Catherine Shaffner as Bombeck, the show stars one of the most engaging actors in town. Moving about the stage as though she's performing household chores, Shaffner conveys an easygoing, likeable presence as Bombeck. Under John Moon's direction, she has every beat down, and does her best with the twin Engel sisters' feeble script. Terrie Powers' set design strikes the right note between fashionable and sensible 1970s décor that you'd imagine Bombeck occupying.

The most interesting portion of the show has Bombeck recounting her work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment. Following a verbal skewering of housewife columnists from feminist activist Betty Friedan, whom we hear through the Hanover Tavern's speakers, Bombeck does the unthinkable; she reads "The Feminist Mystique" and finds a newfound calling. Where she once criticized hardcore feminists as "Roller Derby dropouts and Russian pole-vaulting types," Bombeck becomes a champion of the Equal Rights Amendment, touring the country in support while quipping "We've got to get sex out of the gutter and back into the Constitution where it belongs."

Why couldn't this fascinating turnabout have served as the entry point into Bombeck's life and wit? With so interesting a personality as the play's subject, you can't help but feel that she deserves better. S

Virginia Rep's "Erma Bombeck: at Wit's End" plays through April 8 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.

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