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Review: 'Erma Bombeck' at Lucky Penny: Two views from readers

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Jill Wagoner portrays the humorist Erma Bombeck in Lucky Penny's upcoming production.

Editor's note: Rarely do we get two spontaneous reviews from writers who saw a performance and were inspired to write. This is what happened when Lucky Penny Productions opened their new fall show, "Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End." It seems this is a show not to miss. — Sasha Paulsen

'Howls in the humdrum'

by Betty Malmgren

Vacuum cleaner. Ironing board. Laundry basket. Black rotary dial desk telephone. Toaster. Typewriter.

A “mini” living room, bedroom, and kitchen counter.

The stage was set for “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” at Lucky Penny’s Community Arts Center. While many baby boomers in the audience had memories of Bombeck, younger audience members not familiar with her or her writing laughed along with them during the production.

Who was Erma Bombeck? Perhaps the New York Times headline on her 1996 obituary said it best, “Erma Bombeck Dies at 69; Put Howls Into Humdrum.”

Born in 1927, she has been called one of the great humorists of the 1900s. She wrote about being a suburban housewife, the stereotypes, expectations, sense of self and daily reality as the women’s movement took shape and women’s roles were changing. Her writing was described as domestic satire.

At age 15 she started work at the Dayton Herald newspaper as a copygirl and wrote obituaries. According to one biography, in 1943, for her first journalistic work, she interviewed Shirley Temple who visited Dayton, and the interview became a newspaper feature.

After she graduated from college, married, and she and her husband adopted a girl in 1953, Bombeck said she decided then to become a full-time housewife.

She never stopped writing. She later had two sons. What started as a small newspaper column grew and by the 1970s, her columns were read semi-weekly by 30 million readers of some 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. She also published 15 books, most of which became bestsellers. She appeared on television and made personal appearances.

The one-woman, one-act play was written by Allison Engle and Margaret Engel. Bay Area actress Jill Wagoner ably played Erma in the Lucky Penny production. She did not disappoint and revealed much about Erma we did not know. Barry Martin directed. The Lucky Penny team worked their magic.

The Lucky Penny venue, stage and intimate seating were perfect for this production. The small set worked well and Wagoner’s movements through it were consistent with Erma. Well suited physically to the role, her delivery went from quick one-liners to poignant, thoughtful reflection. A narrator’s voice added depth from time to time. The length of the performance was adequate for the content. The lighting was outstanding and added emphasis and mood to the production.

First coming on stage wearing a housedress, heels, pearls and an apron, Wagoner as Erma vacuumed before changing into slippers. She talked about speaking fluent child, pet funerals and typed in her bedroom “office” while the children were at school. Any parent today could relate. She answered the phone and was amazed and delighted when her column expanded to 36 newspapers, a hint of future success.

Later, putting on a blue shirt over her dress and donning glasses, she conjured up her husband admonishing the family to turn out the lights.

Then, wearing a suit jacket, she attended a talk by Betty Friedan and became a crusader for the Equal Rights Amendment. She went on the road with the leaders of the women’s movement to campaign for the ERA and, in 1978 was appointed to the President’s National Advisory Committee for Women by President Carter.

The script on this topic seemed especially relevant today. “I wish that they could put this on my tombstone: She got Missouri for the ERA.”

Unfortunately, despite an extension of three years, time ran out and the ERA failed. It was one of the biggest disappointments of her life, she said. At the end of the play, a narrator’s voice echoed in the theater, and gave an update on the current status of the ERA.

The only downside to seeing this play was that night dreaming of Phyllis Schlafly.

Erma Bombeck and the ERA

by Sharon Macklin

If you’ve been lucky enough to see Erma Bombeck at Lucky Penny, I’m sure you were as amazed as I was. Yes, I’m old enough to remember Erma’s columns, but didn’t really pay attention to them while raising two kids 15 months apart, however she reminded me of what those years were like.

Jill Wagoner, who plays Erma, struts onto the stage and owns it. She is mesmerizing with Erma’s life story and certainly gets what being a “housewife” is; no she’s not married to her house she tells us.

An amazing set design, lighting and sound enhanced Erma’s extraordinary acting.

It was hilarious and thought-provoking for anyone who is old enough to have experienced her column. As my husband pointed out, most everyone in the audience had grey hair — us too! Made me wonder what younger folks would think. "Younger" to me is a moving target and currently means anyone under 50.

At the end of the play, Erma updates us on what is happening with passing the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and that she had worked for years encouraging passage of it.

We learned that the ERA has gained the three states needed to ratify it although time has run out to adopt it. However, the US Congress recently passed a law that allows the ERA to be ratified now. We just need the U.S. Senate to agree. Good luck with that!

When the 117th U.S. Congress convened in full for the first time on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, resolutions with bipartisan support were introduced to remove the time limit placed upon the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972.

On Wednesday, March 17, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to remove the time limit with a vote of 222-204 on HJ Res 17.

Attention now turns to the U.S. Senate and moving SJ Res 1 to the floor for a vote.

Catch up with Erma

Remaining performances of  "Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End" are Oct. 21 to 24 and 30 to 31 at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center, 1758 Industrial Way #208, Napa.

See for performance times, tickets and information on Covid protocols.

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