Going to Shea's 701 Theatre this week is like a visit with a funny old friend - a friend you may have lost touch with, but miss very much.
"Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End" is a one-woman show starring Pam Sherman of Rochester. Bombeck, who became famous by peeling back the social niceties that kept a generation of post-war women housebound and humbled, would appreciate that Sherman has a law degree and worked as an attorney in D.C. before following her dream to become an actor and author. (And she would have laughed out loud to know her show came to 710 Theatre as a late replacement for "Xanadu," a musical featuring drag queens on roller skates.)
Instead we have this easy, brief hour, adapted from Bombeck's writing by journalists and twins Allison and Margaret Engel. Sherman performs alone, moving gracefully around the comfy set that has everything a mid-century housewife needs: a kitchen, vacuum cleaner, ironing board and, hidden among the dust bunnies in the bedroom, a portable typewriter, the tool which gave Bombeck her voice.
Bombeck, a college graduate who, like so many other women, left work to raise a family, was a sensation 50 years ago, when her column began appearing in newspapers around the country. Suddenly, right alongside the household hints cleaning tips and the advice columnists opining on "How to keep your hubby happy," there was Erma, saying right out loud that "Nobody ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed."
It was groundbreaking and, in the eyes of some, blasphemous. Sherman/Erma recounts receiving letters (remember those?) from critics saying "I feel sorry for your family" and "Why did you even have children?" However, they were drowned out by the legions of fans who clipped her columns and made Bombeck a best-selling author. They related to a woman who confesses, "I kept my hopes and dreams in the back of my mind - the only safe place in the house."
Today, the housework jokes play out as a clever but distant period piece. It has been decades since television commercials berated wives for "ring around the collar" and waxy yellow buildup on their floors. And when Sherman dials the rotary phone, people chuckle at how quaint it is.
What's missing is more of the attitude that made Bombeck a hero beyond her column. She succeeded at first because she was funny, but during her life she never stopped speaking up for women, whether they were feeling invisible at home or passed over in the workplace. At the peak of her fame, she became a vocal advocate for the women's Equal Rights Amendment - which still has not been ratified 20 year's after her death.
And while her one-liners have snap, like the joke about the dessert cart on the Titanic, Bombeck's genius was in her ability to express through her humor the deeper importance of women - to their families and to themselves. Had the show been longer, we may have seen more of scenes like the one in which she acts out the realization that you don't have to hand-sew a Halloween costume to show you love your children (cat on the head = Davy Crockett).
And consider the many murmurs of recognition from the audience when she says, quite seriously, that love means "Saying 'no' when you'll hate me for it."
That's true, but she needn't worry. America will never hate Erma Bombeck; we just wish she had stayed around a little longer.
"Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End"
★ ★ ½ (out of 4 stars)
One-woman show based on the writings of my mother's favorite 20th century humor columnist, Erma Bombeck. At Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St., through Nov. 10. Tickets are $44 (sheas.org).