It was probably impossible to grow up during the latter half of the last century and not see a clipping of Erma Bombeck posted somewhere in the house. Her newspaper column put a humorous spin on everyday life and she somehow made even the most trivial frustration funny.
Curtain Call Theatre is offering a one-woman show, “At Wit’s End” at their home base in Latham through June 13. It captures the insight of Bombeck and offers some revelations on the woman herself.
“At Wit’s End” also offers two lessons about theater. One is that a person who is able to make astute observations on living an ordinary life - usually is a person who lived an ordinary life.
That can be satisfying and even something to be admired. However, lack of drama and conflict in one’s life doesn’t make for a compelling one-woman stage play.
Another lesson is that something that reads funny doesn’t always play funny. At least, it doesn’t in the Curtain Call production.
Terri Storti who plays Bombeck is effective in the play’s more reflective moments. The times when she talks about her affection for her husband and their three children are sincere and caring. Despite all the aggravation they caused to give her fodder for her columns, Storti makes it clear Bombeck had a deep sense of love for her protagonists. Such scenes offer an endearing insight to the woman.
“At Wit’s End” is a memory play, which makes it appropriate to cast an actress of any age. This makes it legitimate to cast Storti who is older than a middle-age Bombeck, which would seem a more appropriate age to write about the trials of child-rearing.
Though initially off-putting, the casting choice does add a grandmotherly feel to the performance. When Bombeck asks you to consider “all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart,” it still gets a laugh. But because the source is grandma, it becomes valid advice on not to let a good moment pass.
But there are larger problems. Storti is a capable actress, but she lacks the sense of comic timing that would make Bombeck’s observations funny. Her punch lines are telegraphed and finished with a self-satisfied grin that make the comments seem forced.
When she delivers Bombeck’s more famous lines like, “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?,” it never seems as if the thought came to her in that moment. There is a sense that the actress is quoting, not sharing. This makes the humor artificial.
The direction by Brian Clemente offers little help. Storti’s blocking often seems forced and contrived. Sounds of her children in another room are phony and distracting Rarely does Clemente use space to make it feel like the central character actually lives there.
To be fair, the set designed by William Fritz is essentially a black box with furniture. Clearly, the producers were willing to settle for functional and utilitarian rather than mood-setting.
However, despite all the flaws, Storti develops an Erma Bombeck who was a decent, grounded individual. The play indicates she stumbled into the role of being the voice for the stay-at-home moms of the country. However, it also shows that over time she relished the job and grew with it.
A turning point in her life was when the writer attended a local lecture by the feminist Betty Friedan. It was life-changing for her. The speech converted her to become an advocate for women’s rights and an activist for the doomed Equal Rights Amendment.
Indeed, the comments in the play that address women’s frustrations, both at home and in the workplace, seem eerily contemporary.
But there is little that goes beyond the superficial. “At Wit’s End” is only 70-minutes in length; it seems a lot longer.
Erma Bombeck” At Wit’s End,” plays at Curtain Call Theatre, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham. Through June 13. Performances Thursdays through Sundays. For tickets and information call 518-877-7529. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test with 72 hours of the performance is needed to enter the theater.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.