Filled with wisecracking charm, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End traces the iconic humorist’s journey from homemaker to popular syndicated columnist to feminist crusader and more. Starring in the title role of this one-woman show is Louisville-based performer Jessica Wortham—and she also serves double-duty as its Line Producer. Days after filming was completed, Wortham connected with Literary Manager Jenni Page-White to chat about the process, and to share her thoughts about how Bombeck’s words resonate today.
Jenni Page-White: As a Line Producer, you’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes, in addition to acting in front of the camera. Could you walk me through the nuts and bolts of your role in the production process, and how you’ve collaborated remotely with director Robert Barry Fleming?
Jessica Wortham: Well, it’s all filmed inside my house. By me. (She laughs.) Since the show will play out on a screen rather than on a stage, Robert’s approach has been to lean into the visual language of a documentary. There’s a formal interview space, but some of the play is also delivered through voiceover while we watch Erma go about her daily domestic routine.
Part of my job was to figure out what and where we should film each day in order to minimize the physical set-up: the hauling of the boom microphone, the boom stand, the sandbags to support the stand, all the lights, the camera, the props… Everything has to be moved. And I’m the one moving it!
So I’d make a plan and present it to Robert, like: “I think we should do this section, this section, and this section in the kitchen. And we need to film at this time in the afternoon because that’s when we get the best natural lighting on that side of the house.” And sometimes it included planning around life—like every other Sunday the lawn guy comes out and there’s a sound issue with the leaf blower for a couple of hours.
JPW: It sounds like your planning process inherently included some lighting and scenic design. Do you feel like this process has stretched you creatively?
JW: On some level, I think it forced me to think like a director. I had to pay attention to how the light behaves in my house, and I had to think about how to frame myself in the space that I live in—and you know, you never think about that kind of stuff in your own home! Of course, Robert was able to help with all that through Zoom.
The real challenge has been switching back and forth between the acting and the technical aspects, because they occupy such different parts of my brain. To go from the exacting, organizational side of my brain, to a place that should be more organic and more experiential as an actor—that’s a hard shift to make. When actors work in film and TV, they prefer to stay “in it,” in a character space between takes. But I didn’t have that luxury. I’d finish filming something, and then I’d have to turn off the camera, or check the exposure, or move cords... Sometimes, by the time we got to the acting work, I felt like, “Oh thank goodness, now I can just act!”
JPW:What excited you about working on this material as an actor?
I was kinda hoping that over the years, we'd be able to figure out the mom thing. You know, the seesaw between work and home. But on that front, nothing seems to have changed.
–FROM ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT'S END
JW: Robert and I have had a lot of discussions about how differently this piece resonates now versus when it premiered five years ago. Erma says very early in the play, “I was kinda hoping that over the years, we’d be able to figure out the mom thing. You know, the seesaw between work and home. But on that front, nothing seems to have changed.” And now with the pandemic, people are working from home, they’re juggling kids, their work life is completely overlapping with home life—we’re all experiencing that now, right?
I think the play has a lot more bite than I first expected. Robert was very interested in my take on the material— and I think Erma’s right, not much has changed. Women can have their own credit cards, I guess. (She chuckles.)
JPW: I think we have Ruth Bader Ginsburg to thank for a lot of that.
JW: Yeah, she passed away while we were filming, and the next day was hard. We said, okay, let’s do it for Ruth!
The articles I read about the pandemic—one of the effects is that women are being set back in the progress they’ve made in the workforce. More often than not, it’s women who are disrupting their jobs and staying home with the children. In the play, Erma talks about the Equal Rights Amendment, and that still hasn’t been ratified. And we don’t have universal childcare… I think women might be more vocal about inequality, but structurally, systemically, we have a long way to go.
This is what's happening at home, and yes you do want to kill your kids, and that's fine—that's normal!
JPW: You have two kids, right? I’m curious, as a working mom in the 21st century—who also happens to be navigating a global pandemic—how do Erma’s words resonate with you?
JW: Well, my kids are three; I have twins. Erma was able to devote time to writing once her kids were all in school. As a working parent, I have not been able to experience that yet. And who knows if I ever will! Is kindergarten going to roll around in two years—when they’re five—will we be back in schools? I don’t know! (She laughs.) So, for me…the work that I can get done during the day is really minimal. I’ve really missed having a space to go to, a dedicated space for work. It’s so hard to split your focus.
I’m just young enough that Erma Bombeck wasn’t really on my radar, so it’s been a real treat for me to learn about her, and how quietly revolutionary it was for her to talk about the shit that everybody takes for granted. To say this is what’s happening at home, and yes you do want to kill your kids, and that’s fine—that’s normal! You still love them fiercely, but no one will push your buttons faster.
There’s a line in the play: “The whole thing is—and was—ridiculous. If you can’t make it better, you had better laugh at it. And if you can laugh at it, you can live with it.” Sometimes that’s all you can do. Don’t take yourself so seriously, laugh at it, and get some endorphins going.