Heartland humor from the Human Race Theatre

By Jackie Theobald

Jennifer Joplin “simulates” Erma Bombeck, here at her makeshift ironing board desk.

Erma Bombeck has come home to Dayton and Dayton is welcoming her back
with enthusiasm.

“It’s about time,” her sons Matt and Andrew said, clearly proud of all their mother did and all she put her talents into. However, as kids they had no idea what their mother did because she was always available to them.

Jennifer Joplin carries the weight of this one person, hour-long compilation of Erma’s columns, books and TV interviews with enormous energy and insight. The script, by twins Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, does an amazing job of gathering and editing some of the best-known Erma quotes. It must have been a huge challenge. Joplin manages those familiar quotes with a convincing range of humor and intent. Her serious moments bring the necessary change of pace.

Joplin has worked hard to be able to ‘get her Erma on.’ She’s researched the delivery and pacing from some of the TV interviews and other sources and says her intention is not to mimic but to simulate.

Director Heather Powell keeps a vigorous pace going with a lot of activity and stage business so that Joplin is almost always moving, and moving smoothly. Some of the vignettes use the device of the unseen characters, but their significance is always clear. A few are straight-forward descriptive dialogue.

The script is biographical, beginning with Erma’s mother and stepfather’s reluctance for Erma to go to college. She had written for a small local weekly, then gotten herself a menial job at The Dayton Journal Herald and eventually was able to go to The University of Dayton. A professor there told her, “You can write.” It was the support she needed to have. Her motto was always that it was better to laugh than cry.

She met Bill Bombeck, who would become a teacher and remained in his profession as Erma’s efforts gained national attention. They lived in Bellbrook.

The Bellbrook connection has become Cherrywood Acres and there are no names of the neighbors, but Dayton citizens can’t get over their pride in having known her ‘when.’ A local professional said he was one of her sons’ friends. “The kids flowed in and out of each others’ homes and didn’t really talk to adults,” he said. “Erma always looked a
little vague.”

Married life, children, dog and neighbors became her focus. She bravely told it like it was. No glamorous high-heeled swish. Instead, it was sock feet and folding laundry (with a bit of audience participation.) “Insanity is inherited. You get it from the children.”  “We were just the average screwed-up family and it’s not easy. But there was love in every line.”

She was proud of never missing a deadline or dinner. In the earlier years there was a lot of Chef Boy-ar-dee.

Bill was frugal. There are some priceless quotes, perhaps often heard in others’ homes that relate to the number of lights left on and other minor sins.

Director Powell is also a champion Prop Master and she has dressed the set with detail, including items such as a vintage manual typewriter and rotary phone, and a screeching ironing board, including an iron with a scorched bottom.

Erma lowers the ironing board part way, sits on the end of the bed and has her desk. We feel her shock and surprise when she’s offered three dollars a column and then syndication in 36 papers. Eventually she became one of women’s best spokespersons. Her distribution reached 900 papers at considerably more than three dollars a column. She appeared frequently on TV where she was an articulate and humorous interview.

Erma later turned her attention to attempting to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, working with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug. They were not all able to find the humor in their efforts. The ERA failed by three votes and still has not been ratified.

A naysayer once heckled her: “Why don’t you just go home and make babies?” “I did, sir. And now they are old enough to vote against you.”

Joplin handles the solemnity of Erma’s failing kidneys with poignancy and dignity. Then she reconnects with her mother after some years and sees a kind of role reversal. There is a lovely conclusion of valuing those earned wrinkles.

At the end of the all-too-short hour, Erma can’t quite leave the stage, but keeps popping back; really it’s over, almost, well not quite, one more time. Each re-appearance is accompanied by Jay Brunner’s light musical trill.

Jared Joplin serves as Stage Manager. He is a busy stage actor as well as appearing in film and touring with Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA.

Jennifer Joplin acknowledges her own mother’s enormous importance to her acting family. As we note Mother’s Day in May, we remember Erma’s favorite: “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else.”

Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is being presented by the Human Race Theatre at the Philips Creativity Center, 116 N. Jefferson St., Dayton through May 20. For more information call 937.228.3630, or visit humanracetheatre.org

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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