There’s not much that intimidates seasoned actress Catherine Shaffner – except starring in a one-woman show. And, that’s exactly what she will be doing when Virginia Rep’s production of Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End opens at Hanover Tavern on March 2.
“I’ve never done a one-person show before,” says Shaffner, who is recovering from a virus that caused her to lose her voice. “It’s daunting. You are out there by yourself. You need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s like stepping off a cliff and hoping you can keep you feet under you as your speed picks up.”
Audiences last saw Shaffner in Virginia Rep’s Miracle on South Division Street during the holiday season. “It was one of those special occurrences where the entire company got along so well. It was a very social, loving place to come,” she says.
Now, she’s faced with the prospect of coming to the theatre alone, and being there with no one else but the stage manager. “I was thinking it was going to be a lonely experience because there was no one to share in the experience on stage,” she says.
But then actor Joe Pabst, an actor and director and friend of Shaffner’s, offered to step in as stage manager. “He’s an Erma Bombeck fan. Having him there is making all the difference,” she says.
Shaffner is no stranger to the wit and wisdom of humorist Erma Bombeck, whose 30-year career writing about being a stay-at-home mom included countless columns and fifteen books. She grew up with magazines carrying Bombeck’s column scattered around her parent’s home.
A natural comedian, Shaffner can relate to the late Bombeck. “I think we share a number of attributes,” she says. “She and I are both smart alecks with an accent on smart. We’ve decided to enjoy our lives. One way to deal with adversity is through humor. That’s a big skill set. That is part of my wheelhouse and that certainly was part of hers.”
Shaffner was surprised to learn that Bombeck dealt with illness her whole life. Her father died when she was nine years old. At the age of twenty, she was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. She was a cancer and mastectomy survivor. She died in 1996 after complications from a kidney transplant.
“Like most women in America, she was dealing with more than getting the kids off and supper on the table,” Shaffner says. “But she found a way to deal with it all through humor.”
During the approximately hour-long production, Shaffner revisits Bombeck’s legacy. “The show covers decades of her life,” she says.
Shaffner learned several new things about Bombeck during her research. One that really caught her eye was Bombeck’s involvement in trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed in 1978 as part of the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women. “It’s astonishing that this concept is not part of our nation’s constitution,” says Shaffner, noting the amendment was first introduced in Congress in in 1921.
Bombeck was a unique voice for women. “The key to her writing, as Bombeck says in the show, is ‘that I’m ordinary,’” Shaffner says. “Most of us are not miraculous. It was her everyday Jane quality that made her the most widely distributed columnist in America.”
For tickets and showtimes, visit Virginia Rep online. Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End opens at Hanover Tavern on March 2 and runs through April 29.
(Photo by Jay Paul)