Chagrin Falls sister-duo Allison and Margaret Engle will premiere their production of Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End at the Cleveland Play House from July 29-August 20 at Outcalt Theatre in Playhouse Square.
The play chronicles the life of trailblazer Erma Bombeck, one of the first women journalists to reach a national audience with her columns, eventually spanning across 900 newspapers in North America. A self-described “domestic demigoddess,” Bombeck gave a voice to the everyday problems and joys faced by women across the nation.
Below, we got together with both Engels to discuss the ups and downs of bringing their production to life.
Cleveland Magazine: How did you become playwrights together?
Allison Engel: Well, Peggy and I have both been journalists since college and done book projects together. And we’ve always been interested in theater. When we were growing up in Chagrin Falls, we were, instead of going to dancing classes, going to theater classes. So theater was always something that we’ve been interested in.
Margaret Engel: And I’ll tell you how our first play came about. I was supposed to be on a panel one April with the journalist Molly Ivins and I had known that she had been battling breast cancer, but I was shocked to pick up The New York Times on January 31 of that year to find out that she had died. And so obviously, we didn’t get to be on that panel together. But I was so overwhelmed with the fact that she had such a voice and was so smart. Then I thought: we can’t lose this. So I called Allison and said, “That’s it. We have to write a one-woman show about Molly.” And I don’t know why I said that versus anything else, but Allison agreed. And I knew the co-writer of Molly’s last two books, so I called him up and got the name of their agent and we flew to New York to meet him to get permission to use some of Molly’s words. He gave us nine months to get production up. And for journalists, that sounded like a lot of time we now know in the theater world, that's like a hot minute. Nothing ever happens that fast. But we wrote it and we got it up within nine months. Because we had a lot of happy accidents that occurred. One of them being, you know, Peggy and I were thinking “Who would be a great actress to play Molly Ivins?” We thought, “Man, Kathleen Turner would be the best!” and I was telling friends of mine about this and one, Jim Autry, asked “who would you want to play Molly?” And I said “Kathleen Turner,” and he said, “Well, you know, I serve on a board with her.” and I said, “No, I didn't know that.” The board was People for the American Way. And he said, “I’m gonna give her the script,” and I said, “No you can’t do that because we don’t have the final permission yet.” But he didn’t listen to me and gave Kathleen the script, and it turned out that Kathleen had met Molly Ivins and wanted the script, and so that really helped us, having Kathleen on board.
But actually a week before Kathleen came on board, I was the managing editor of the Newseum at that time. And the newspaper historian on our staff just randomly asked me what I was working on. And I said, “Oh, you know, my twin sister and I wrote this play,” and I didn't even tell him what it was about. He said, “You know, my dad is really interested in the theater. Why don't you give me the script?” I didn't know his father, but I gave him the script. His father turned out to be the Treasurer of Arena Stage in Washington, and he gave it to Molly Smith, the artistic director who called me up and said, “I want to do this play.” And a week later, Kathleen signed off on it. Those kinds of happy accidents do not happen to first-time playwrights.
CM: Does the title hold any significance?
AE: Yes, the title At Wit’s End was the title of Erma’s column, which was syndicated in more than 900 newspapers. First, there will never be anyone that equals that because there aren't many newspapers anymore.
CM: What inspired you to tell Bombeck’s story?
ME: We have a great story, and it is true! Our mother was sitting at the kitchen table reading The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and she was laughing so hard. The paper was shaking in her hand. And we say, “What’s so funny, Mom?” The only two words she could get out were, “Erma Bombeck.” So our mom was a huge fan, and we started reading Erma. And we would actually race home from school and throw the paper down on the ground and read it together, so we could both read the column at the same time, so one of us didn’t get it before the other.
CM: What makes Bombeck such a fascinating character?
ME: She had the ability to write about what was going on behind closed doors in America. She said that motherhood is the profession that everyone admires, but no one actually knows how it’s done. And so the family dynamics were such an uncovered area. And she was writing about the good, the bad and the ugly, but doing it with love. She admitted that sometimes she wanted to leave her child by the last Shell station they visited because he had been kicking the driver's seat for 50 miles and threw his tennis shoes out the window. So she wasn't pretending that everything was rosy, and that her kids drove her crazy or her husband disappointed her, but she was always writing from an area of love. But she also was a truly sharp observer of what happens in 80% of our lives.
AE: It's interesting, even though almost all her columns were humorous. There were a few that were not and they were often the most requested ones because they were pointed, and they just really hit home. But she did have this amazing facility to write in a humorous way about almost any topic. In fact, late in her career, she was asked to write a humorous book about kids with cancer. And she thought, you know, that is impossible. You can't write a humor book about kids getting a terrible disease. And she interviewed kids with cancer and, by gosh, she wrote a book about kids with cancer that was true and humorous, and it was a huge bestseller like all the rest of her things. So she had this amazing talent for writing truth. You know, she didn't make anything up, although she said she never met an exaggeration that she didn't love. You know, she would exaggerate things to make a point. But she wrote and somehow wrote in a way that people love to read, and it really struck home.
CM: What can you tell me about Bombeck’s legacy?
ME: There are so many women columnists who use Erma as their inspiration. Our friend Connie Schultz wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and was syndicated, and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think that she would plant herself firmly in concert with much of Erma's writing. Along with several New York Times columnists we can mention who also followed in her footsteps. So she was really the groundbreaker. I felt because before that there were kind of “humorous housewives” kind of columns. But this, what Erma did, was a type of a totally different level.
The University of Dayton every two years has an Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop where people come from all over the country, and it’s a several day conference with really, just extraordinary panelists. So that is clearly her legacy and has gone on well past decades after she died.I can't think of another columnist that has a workshop every other year that attracts people from around the country. And so that is really keeping her legacy alive. And it spawned so many books, essays, and careers.
CM: Was it difficult for you to adapt Bombeck’s life into a play?
AE: You know, it really wasn't. In fact, she was so prolific. You know, she had years and years of writing three columns a week. And then she gave speeches that we had access to, and she had television appearances. And then her books, by and large, were not compilations of columns. They were separate topics. So we just had a wealth of material. We probably could have written three plays about her. And, you know, sometimes people say, “Oh, you didn't put in my favorite column in,” but we just had a lot of material to choose from.
ME: This is not a compilation or sort of “best of” columns or one liners, but the description of a life of a woman who considers herself quite ordinary but is actually the truth. Like many women, she was anything but ordinary. And she was a cheerleader for the moms taking care of everyone and standing in the back, hoping for recognition. And I think that really hits a lot of courts. We often see men in the audience of this play who get a little weepy and appreciative, and I think it's because they recognize what their mothers sacrifice for them. And she wasn't a martyr to this at all. She recognized what was happening in the home and the imbalance between men and women. But she was able to portray it in a way that doesn't make anybody feel guilty or awkward. It’s just, this is kind of the characteristic of how American families operate.
CM: What do you hope viewers take away from this production?
AE: I think one thing that Peggy mentioned earlier about how Erma always saw herself as an ordinary person. Erma lived very modestly and had this brilliant career at the same time. She and her husband had a long standing, loving marriage and raised three children. So I think, you know, that's very unusual to be so celebrated, and yet maintain that sense of normalcy.
CM: What are the most exciting aspects of this production?
ME: Well, we’re excited to have Pam Sherman play Erma. Pam has played Erma in Denver and in Rochester, New York. And she really understands Erma as a columnist, as she had a column called The Suburban Outlaws. So she has a very insider understanding of being a newspaper writer and she's a terrific actress, and so that's very exciting to us to come back to the role. And Mark Cuddy, our artistic director, was the one who recognized the importance of this play in Rochester. And so it’s a celebration of the highest order that he’s bringing it to Cleveland Play House.
CM: Lastly, is there anything you want to share or would like us to know?
ME: We're just thrilled that live theater has come back. Particularly now that the writers and actors are on strike in Hollywood. We would love people to support the arts by going to live theater. That's one thing that you can do. And this is a great family show. It's a great show to go to with your girlfriends, with your spouse, with your parents, with your kids. We had audiences crossing all ages. And this is not just a show for women. We get a lot of men who are very appreciative. So we feel good about a play that makes people laugh.