In The Feminine Mystique (1963) Betty Friedan called it "the problem that has no name," but it took Erma Bombeck to put a face on the pathos of the suburban housewife. Drawing on Bombeck's first-person newspaper articles and books, Allison Engel and Margaret Engel cobble together exasperated witticisms to create Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End (Bombeck's book of the same title was published in 1965), the one-hour, one-woman show now running at Bristol Riverside Theatre.
There is not a lot of meat and potatoes in their script, no dramatic narrative or extended storytelling. And Bombeck's wit is not large and biting like that of the humorists she so much admired — Twain, Benchley, Parker. At Wit's End (2015) pales in comparison to Hal Holbrook's landmark Mark Twain Tonight! (1954).
Actress Licia Watson effectively portrays an amiable woman who just wants her own suffering recognized. Erma's outwardly comfortable life is full of problems too minor to be easily seen — worrisome and truculent children, menial tasks carried out in isolation. "Housewife. What a concept. A woman married to a house."
Indeed, under director Jennie Eisenhower, the house may be the show's star. The kitchen, TV room, and bedroom rule the roost in discrete areas, suffocating in their tidy practicality. (Set design, Roman Tatarowicz). The pastel décor is soporific. Huge and absurdly useless period lamps flank the bed like ceremonial canopic jars.
It makes you want to tear your hair out; you know why Watson's Bombeck feels homeless in her own house. But she triumphs when she sits on her bed, opens the ironing board, and places her typewriter atop this makeshift desk. "A room of one's own!" she declares. She explains why she became a writer: "I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired to have an affair."
You wish Wit said more about the historic dust-up between Bombeck, who died in 1996, and Friedan, whose death came 10 years later. Bombeck found Friedan's disdain for the suburban ethos too ideological; Friedan dismissed Bombeck's tolerance of the housewife role as "Uncle Tom" humor. (Friedan later regretted her severity, and Bombeck campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment.)
Still, you suspect they had enduring differences in their attitude toward progress and suffering. Bombeck's own life was full of ill health and tragedy that she rarely mentioned. To restrict her writing to the woes of the suburban housewife feels like a mannered fatalism.
You sense something more desperate lurks in her late-show observation: "You can't make it better, so you better laugh at it. If you can laugh at it, you can live with it."