At MRT, the ‘sage of suburbia’ is alive and well

Karen MacDonald as Erma Bombeck in MRT’s “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.” Photo: Kathy Wittman

LOWELL – She was the unlikeliest of media superstars.

Erma Bombeck reveled in being an “ordinary” mother and housewife. The suburban sage described her typical workday as “blazing a trail from the laundry room to the sink.”

But her thrice-weekly column on the foibles of everyday home life in suburban Ohio eventually found its way into 900 newspapers with 30 million regular readers, and she wrote 15 books in all, many of them best-sellers, while also becoming a TV personality and a popular speaker.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre has enlisted one of the area’s finer comedic actors, Karen MacDonald, to bring Bombeck back to life in “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” now being performed live onstage in the Nancy Donahue Theater and on streaming video through March 13.

Bombeck died in 1996 but her books and columns have kept her relevant with humor that never goes out of style.

There were challenges aplenty before Bombeck found her calling. Her mother was just 16 when she bore Erma Louise Fiste in the midst of the Great Depression and her father died when she was only nine.

She was hired by a local radio station to be part of a children’s revue and later dabbled in journalism at her high school paper and at area newspapers.

Karen MacDonald as Erma Bombeck in MRT’s “At Wit’s End.” Photo: Kathy Wittman

But it wasn’t until she enrolled at the University of Dayton after a failed stint at Ohio University and a professor told her she could make a living as a writer that Bombeck emerged.

That living may have started at a mere $3 a column but she was overwhelmed when she was first syndicated to a group of 30 newspapers.

As the champion of stay-at-home moms and their self-worth Bombeck was angered when she first heard Betty Friedan speak and later read “The Feminine Mystique.”

“You are not using your God-given talents to their potential,” said Freidan.

Bombeck fiercely believed that the women’s movement needed to expand to include the voices of stay-at-home mothers, and she worked tirelessly for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment – one of the few well-known women of her generation to actively promote the legislation. 

She also became a familiar figure on TV on shows such as “Good Morning America.”

For the record, I viewed the streaming version of “At Wit’s End” but MacDonald is still able to bring the warmth, generosity and genuineness of the character to the fore. This is the Erma that her readers – including me – came to love.

MacDonald’s Erma moves easily and efficiently about Daniel Zimmerman’s colorful set.

The one-liners also come cascading down as if part of a waterfall. She loves her husband Bill but she is still able to quip: “God created man. I could have done better.”

“When our kids misbehave, I tell them if they don’t shape up I’ll put them to bed with supper.”

“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”

A breast cancer survivor, Bombeck died much too early – at 69 – from complications from a kidney transplant necessitated by polycystic kidney disease, an incurable and untreatable genetic disease she was diagnosed with when she was only 20. She hid it from her public for many years.

Director Terry Berliner keeps MacDonald on the move so the solo performance isn’t too static.

At several points MacDonald’s Bombeck muses about her success. “The key to my writing was that I’m ordinary.”

“All those years I was writing for me and those mothers in the back of the room.”

And, finally, looking above: “I used everything You gave me.”

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.” Written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel. Directed by Terry Berliner.  Scenic design by Daniel Zimmerman. Costumes by Teresa Snider Stein. Lighting by Joel Shier. Sound design by Scott Stauffer. Original music by Brett Macias. Onstage at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre or streaming on video through March 13. For ticket information go to