Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
I don’t know too much about Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), other than she was an peculiar looking woman married to one president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)) and related to another (Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919, was her uncle), who was greatly admired for her own work for peace, civil rights, etc. I think I would have enjoyed Eleanor: Her Secret Journey a lot more if I had read a good biography ahead of time. That’s the kind of thing I often do, and enjoy doing, but I imagine that I am in the minority. Most people don’t prepare for an evening of theatre, they just go, which is what I did this time and I regretted it.
But how much is that laziness on my part and how much is that laziness on the part of playwright Rhoda Lerman. How much knowledge can you assume of your audience and when and where is it the job of the playwright, or at least the director and/or dramaturg, to fill in the gaps. Take Woodrow Wilson, for instance. I am fully aware that the United States had a president by that name, and that he served early in the 20th century, but was he the “Mister Wilson” being referred to in this play? Wilson is a common enough name. And if it was Woodrow Wilson, was he president at this point or serving in some other capacity? If, at least once, he had been referred to as President Wilson, both of my questions would have been answered.
However the BTF is running this show sporadically on the Unicorn Stage from August through November. That timing would suggest that they hope school groups will attend. And while Lerman may provide enough information for an old dog like me to kinda/sorta know who’s who and what’s what, junior high and high school kids will be completely lost.
This one-act, one woman show begins with the phone ringing. It is “Mister Truman” inviting “Mrs. Roosevelt” to do something connected with the United Nations (he was inviting her to serve as a delegate to the General Assembly, but this was not made clear in the play). The year is 1946 and she is already a widow. The action takes place in her home, Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, NY. She tells Truman that she will consider his request, and the next 75 minutes involve her recalling events in her life and marriage at the end of the First World War as she struggles to make her decision.
Actress Elizabeth Norment does an excellent job of giving different voices and manners to each of the characters Eleanor interacts with – her husband, her mother-in-law, Bernard Baruch, the British Major Duckworth, etc. – but she doesn’t look much like Eleanor Roosevelt, and she never gets her unique vocal inflections right. That’s okay, an actor does not have to be a dead-ringer or do an impression of an historical personage to play one convincingly. This is the theatre and Eleanor Roosevelt has been dead for more than four decades. Obviously I wasn’t going to get the real deal.
The title of this show is dreadful. Eleanor: Her Secret Journey sounds like a headline from the cover of True Confessions magazine. Since the actual journey she describes in the course of the play – a trip to war-torn France with her husband, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, in 1918 – is a matter of public record and was hardly secret then or now, I assume that the journey of the title is her inner journey towards the decision to serve the U.N.
But the title also prevented me from understanding, until the very end, that this was not a play about Eleanor Roosevelt, but a play about the First World War and how Mrs. Roosevelt’s experience of it informed her dedication to pacificism in her later life. Lerman is issuing a passionate plea, using Eleanor Roosevelt as her mouthpiece, for peace. Needless to say, she is preaching to the choir as far as most American audiences are concerned.
Not only did Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt visit Europe in 1918, but it was then that Eleanor discovered in her husband’s suitcase the love letters he had received from his secretary, Lucy Mercer, with whom he was having an affair. Mercer was with FDR when he died in 1945, so Lerman having Eleanor revisit her discovery of the affair so shortly after Franklin’s death when Mercer had once again been a part of their lives should be poignant, but again vital information is lacking and Lerman assumes that her audience knows the full details of the back story when the majority do not.
I had heard that even the great Jean Stapleton couldn’t make this play work, and now I see why. If this show is indeed going to serve as an introduction to Eleanor Roosevelt for area school children, that is a great pity. It does not do the woman or the audience justice.
Norment and director Stephen Temperley have worked hard, but a performance is only as good as the material being dramatized. I found R. Michael Miller’s set just as unspecific as Lerman’s script – a desk, a chair, a table, an archway, a crenulated backdrop covered in somber green wallpaper – is that what Val-Kill Cottage looks like? I doubt it.
If I knew more about Eleanor Roosevelt, I could recommend the best biography to read (Joseph Lash won a Pulitzer for his, so its probably pretty ggod) or documentary to watch. A day trip to Hyde Park to visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Center and both Val-Kill and Springwood would be a fun family outing. She was such a great woman and, as BTF Artistic Director Kate Maguire noted in her curtain speech, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton could have been viable presidential candidates without her groundbreaking work. There are surely better ways to explore the public and private journeys that transformed her into such a powerful force for change.
Eleanor: Her Secret Journey runs through November 9 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs an hour and twenty minutes with no intermission.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008