"Eleanor" A Stirring Performance At Barrington Stage Company
With “Eleanor” at Barrington Stage Company there is an almost wondrous blending of creativity which, as it should, turns life into art.
The spellbinding performance of Harriet Harris interpreting the wise words of playwright Mark St. Germain brings the indomitable figure of Eleanor Roosevelt to life. Henry Stram’s subtle direction steers the actress into being more human than iconic.
The trio work in tandem to make “Eleanor” more than a biography. It is a portrait of a woman who, in finding herself, became an inspiration for all the women who came after her.
As the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor not only redefined the role of First Lady of the United States, she became a model for all wives of the latter half of the 20th century.
Experiencing “Eleanor” is like having tea with an old friend who honestly tells you, warts and all, about her marriage. As the conversation continues you realize the discussion is not purely matrimonial in nature. It is really an explanation of how an unattractive, privileged woman found the inner-strength to be herself. And that self, turned out to be something truly special.
Thanks to a brilliant and compelling performance by Harris, we learn that Eleanor’s inner-strength came almost as a surprise to herself. The first third of the 90-minute work consists of establishing background for the two central figures, Franklin and Eleanor.
We understand the complicated family ties; they were distant cousins. We find out about Franklin’s stifling devotion to his mother and Eleanor’s competitive relationship with her cousin Alice, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who Alice describes as a man “Who wants to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.”
We learn about Franklin contracting polio and how he overcame the physical challenge to become Governor of New York and President of the United States. It examines his strength in uniting the country during the Great Depression and World War II.
It also points out FDR’s failure to fight for increased European immigration, especially Jews, during the war. It shows his lack of political will on fighting for racial rights at home and describes his battles with Eleanor over the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
As a writer, St. Germain shines in giving us a lot of information without slowing down the play or numbing our minds. It is a solid foundation for when conflict enters the relationship.
That conflict is Eleanor’s response when she learns that her husband was having an affair with her own personal secretary. Eleanor found herself with two choices. One was to remain a subservient prop for her husband’s political ambitions. The other was to remain in the marriage under her own terms. Those terms were a celibate relationship and total independence to pursue her own goals.
She chose the second. She not only became the conscience for the three plus terms of the Roosevelt administration, it permitted her to become a woman who could lead through wisdom and caring rather than charisma. She constantly fought her husband to be stronger in areas of racial equality, women’s rights, a more open immigration policy and protection under the constitution for all citizens.
Playwright St. Germain is open and candid about Eleanor’s personal independence as well. The play does not shirk from bringing up her well-documented personal relationship with Lorena Hickock, whom Eleanor endearingly called Hick. It also addresses her relationship with her bodyguard Earl Miller. Harris handles the personal revelations with tenderness, especially showing Hicks as a deep caring friend and companion.
Actually, it is Eleanor’s relationship with her father that is the most complex issue in the woman’s life. It is a moment of irony, when near the end of the play, she discovers both Franklin and her father had been betraying her in much the same way for years. With painful insight Eleanor asks the audience, “Why do I forgive one, but not the other?”
The way Harris glides so smoothly from world crisis to personal crisis is a credit to director Stram who is tremendous in helping Harris set the tone of a woman offering a free-flowing inner-monologue in a very disciplined but relaxed manner.
Even at the end of the play when Eleanor describes her 17 years of achievement after her husband’s death – which include being the first female delegate to the United Nations, serving as President Kennedy’s representative to the Peace Corps and her many honors from Black organizations like the NAACP – it is conversational rather than boasting.
90-minutes is hardly enough time to cover a life of accomplishment, but when Harris says, “Happiness is not a goal – it is the gift of a life well lived,” that sentence alone defines the essence of Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Eleanor” continues at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA through August 7. For tickets and schedule information go to barringtonstageco.org or call 413-236-8888.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.