Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Salomé and Alice in Wonderland

Barbara Chisholm
Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End, now in the Kogod Cradle at Washington's Arena Stage, is an entertaining if innocuous hour-long chat with a humorist whose syndicated column, offering insights about life as a stay-at-home wife and mother, resonated widely and eventually appeared in 900 newspapers.

This play marks the return of playwrights (and twin sisters) Margaret Engel and Allison Engel and director David Esbjornson to the Cradle, where they had great success a few seasons back with another one-actor play about an outspoken woman, Molly Ivins: Red Hot Patriot. Barbara Chisholm makes her Washington debut as a woman whose life (1927-96) absorbed and reflected the changes of the 20th century from the Great Depression through World War II, the postwar rise of suburbia, and the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Chisholm as Bombeck greets the audience at her snug suburban home in Dayton, Ohio, cleverly designed by Daniel Conway with handy hidden spaces for props and costume changes. She talks about how she had worked as a journalist before her marriage and three children and had dreamed of being a foreign correspondent, but "to the world outside I was just a housewife." She decided to write the truth she saw about life as a homemaker, not glossing over the frustrations that went with the routine of shepherding the kids out the door each morning and taking care of every detail before they came home after school—but always writing with humor, heart, and dignity.

Chisholm does a fine job as Bombeck, especially as she reveals the early sadness and tragedies of the woman's life and how writing and laughter kept her grounded, but most of the play doesn't really go anywhere. The narrative picks up steam near the end with Bombeck's political awakening: after Betty Friedan dismissed writers such as Bombeck as victims apologizing to their oppressors, Bombeck poured her anger into advocacy for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The show is entertaining enough, but the moderation of Bombeck's writing works against its success as drama. Unlike Molly Ivins, who knew how to throw a rhetorical grenade, Bombeck shared observations that were quieter and less explosive.

Arena Stage
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
October 9th - November 8th
By Margaret Engel and Allison Engel
Erma Bombeck: Barbara Chisholm
Second Son Voice: Maximillian Bishop
Daughter Voice: Maya Brettell
Bill Bombeck and Other Male Voices: John Lescault
First Son Voice: Henry Metcalf
Biff Blanchard and Other Male Voices: Michael Russotto
Betty Friedan and Other Female Voices: Holly Twyford
Directed by David Esbjornson
Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

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