Native Daytonian Erma Bombeck, who tickled America’s funny bone with her humorous reflections on everyday suburban life, is the subject of a play produced by The Human Race Theatre Company that will be on stage April 19-May 13 at the Caryl D. Philips Creativity Center, 116 N. Jefferson St., Dayton.
“At Wit’s End” was so popular at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park last spring that its run was extended three times. Finally the long-awaited one-woman show comes to Bombeck’s home town.
One of those most excited is Teri Rizvi, founder and co-director of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, who traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2015 for the show’s world premiere.
“I knew it would be the perfect show for Erma’s hometown and began discussions with the Victoria Theatre and the Human Race Theatre Company,” Rizvi says. “Erma is a hometown treasure and one of the University of Dayton’s most famous graduates.”
A portion of the proceeds from the four preview performances April 19-22 will benefit the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop Endowment, which helps keep the workshop affordable for writers. A staged reading of the show was presented during the 2016 workshop.
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Bombeck, who penned thousands of columns for 900 newspapers, wrote a dozen books, and spent 11 years delivering clever commentaries on “Good Morning, America,” got her start at the Kettering-Oakwood Times and Dayton’s Journal Herald. She died in 1996. One of her most quoted lines: “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?”
Cincinnati actor stars
The Dayton production stars Cincinnati actor Jennifer Joplin, who understudied the role of Erma in Cincinnati last year. A long-standing Human Race Resident Artist and a graduate of Wright State University’s professional actor training program, Joplin has worked nationally as an actor, corporate trainer, voice-over artist and teacher, recently adding two film credits to her resume.
“I grew up with Erma’s column always posted to the fridge,” says Joplin. “Based on my childhood, refrigerator magnets were only used for one of two reasons — to proudly display your kid’s artwork or enjoy the latest Erma column. She talked about a family life so real and familiar that it made you feel better about your own crazy family! Unlike advice columns, her self-deprecating humor made it feel like she was just like us in so many ways.”
Joplin says as the understudy for Barbara Chisholm — who played the role in D.C. and in Cincinnati —she got to sit in the audience and watch Chisholm in the role. “Every audience I was a part of smiled and nodded, quoted her most famous one- liners under their breath as Barbara said them, laughed and cried and looked like they just spent an hour with a dear old friend by the end,” Joplin recalls. “Rehearsal is so important and being able to watch someone else’s process when creating a role is a gift, but watching those audiences really made me realize that this show – and of course Erma – was something special.”
Her research for the role also involved watching interviews with Bombeck. “Only seeing her live do you start to notice the rhythm of her comic delivery,” she notes. “She had a very dry delivery when she was on live TV and it helps her words pack the biggest punch. Since most of this show is in her very own words, I think it’s important to feel that rhythm.”
Joplin says she’s honored to share Bombeck’s humor as well as her courage and heart. “Working on this show, I’ve come to realize how really revolutionary she was,” she says. ” What she did in her writing and her activism was remarkable and still inspiring. She’s a true hero of mine.”
About the playwrights
The show was written by identical twins Allison and Margaret Engel who live at opposite ends of the country and have been writing long-distance together for years — even before fax machines, computers and Skype.
In a phone interview before the world premiere in Washington the Engels told me they’d grown up in Cleveland and have early memories of their mother holding the Cleveland Plain Dealer and shaking with laughter. “The only two words she managed to get out were ‘Erma Bombeck,’” Allison said. “We knew Erma was someone who made our mother laugh, and we also remember reading her. I remember being fascinated by her ability to be funny column after column.”
Their research uncovered a lot they hadn’t known.
“One of things we didn’t realize was that she spent two years going around the country stumping for the Equal Rights Amendment,” Allison said. “She was still writing when she and Liz Carpenter traveled together and went to states that had not yet ratified the amendment. She spoke to women’s groups everywhere and was very well-received.”
The sisters said that travel was a life-changing time for Bombeck. “She had such a national presence at that time and for her to do that on her own initiative was really something,” Allison said.
Want to learn more about Erma Bombeck?
The University of Dayton has redesigned and expanded its online Erma Bombeck museum. A repository for scholars, humorists, journalists, authors, essayists and bloggers, the Erma Bombeck Collection (www.ermabombeckcollection.com) features all things Erma — from family photographs and biographical book excerpts to “Good Morning America” clips and “Maggie” sitcom episodes.
A copy of the play “At Wit’s End” is part of the collection.