Eleanor: Her Secret Journey by Rhoda Lerman. Directed by Stephen Temperley.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Elizabeth Norment as Eleanor Roosevelt; photo: Kevin Sprague
photo: Kevin Sprague
"...burning up in that cremation we call a career."
When I was growing up we had an LP, much cherished by my mother, entitled "Eleanor Roosevelt: Impressions of Great Men." It always disappointed me, each time I played that record, that Mrs. Roosevelt wasnít doing impressions of Churchill and Stalin and others. She was only talking about them. She clearly knew the people she was talking about and of whom she was drawing endearing word pictures. She just made no attempt to sound like them. So much for impressions.
On the Unicorn stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA actress Elizabeth Norment is playing Mrs. Roosevelt [1884-1962] in a new, one-woman one-act play which claims to be about "her secret journey," and while recent years past have proclaimed the former first ladyís longtime flirtation with lesbianism this is not the obvious topic at hand. There are hints of this in the latter half of the play, but nothing is made clear, nor should it be - that is not this particular journey. Norment, by the way, is not doing her "impression" of the lady but is playing her as a living and breathing person, one who actually does do impressions. Imagine that! Full circle.
In the play, set in 1945/46, Eleanor has been asked by President Truman to head the American delegation to the newly created United Nations and she is unsure about the rightness of such a move. She takes time to assess her own past and comes to the ultimate conclusion that she will accept the offer and take a giant step into her own political career. This was a position, by the way, that the lady maintained until 1953 with Eisenhower took over the White House.
The drama Eleanor relives in this period of contemplation over her own future, are the years surrounding World War I, the war to end all wars, the start of the abortive League of Nations. A difficult time for the Roosevelts, separated by Franklinís official duties and her own responsibilities as the mother of five American aristocrats, she discovers her husbandís infidelity with Lucy Mercer and separates herself from his proffered intimacies. Her exposure to the horrors of the war only aid in her defiant independence from her husband and her domineering mother-in-law. Eleanor begins to explore the world outside her narrow social strata and discovers the breadth and depth of the womenís movements, makes friends and decides to establish her own home with her new women friends. Is this lesbianism? The question is never addressed. Nor need it be. It is not the issue in this play. This is about making up oneís mind about the future rather than addressing the past.
Along the way the actress gets to portray a young army sergeant who develops a quick and ardent friendship with Eleanor, financier Bernard Baruch ("a Hebrew"), her own schoolteacher Mlle. Silvestre, her army escort Major Duckworth, Uncle Ted (Theodore Roosevelt), Sara Delano Roosevelt and Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight, among others. She plays them as Eleanor might have were she capable of doing impressions. This double layer of acting suits Norment well and she pulls off brilliantly the stunt of becoming someone becoming someone else. It helps us ignore the fact that she, the actress, is not doing an impression of the real Eleanor. She never quite gets the accent or the peculiar vocal strains right, but her self description of having "twice as many teeth as anyone I know" is borne out in Norment's enormous smile.
Normentís Eleanor is a woman with a certain degree of class and an awkward beauty that isnít always apparent. She bears little resemblance to the lady in question and could not be mistaken for her, even in half-light. Instead she creates, quite wonderfully, a character named Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, based on a historical figure. Her choice is the right one, there are enough impressions taking place in this play. The show needs a good solid grounding in a woman who looks, sounds, feels real. That she has done.
Stephen Temperley has accomplished something unusual in this work. This single actor experience is not about the actressís ability to create a multiple character piece, but rather about the characterís ability to transform her memories into something solid on stage. He often placed Norment in the worst possible light and position and lets her find her way through to the realities of the people Eleanor is addressing. It is a fine technique to use, allowing his collaborative efforts with the lighting designer, Thom Weaver, to bring out the differences.
In a lengthy and really amusing conversation with her mother-in-law, played downstage center, Weaverís focused and concentrated light allows Sara Delano to move about from stage left to stage right, around her finicky daughter-in-law who addresses the moving woman without ever losing us in the process. We always know who is speaking and where each one is at any given moment.
The set, by H. Richard Miller, and Tracy Christensenís plain and straightforward costume work to the advantage of the play, never interfering with our belief in place or period and providing a simplicity to the program that removes all but two props from the actress, a telephone and a framed photo of FDR.
Finally, a major kudo to the playwright for not making this a play about Franklin. She keeps the focus where it belongs - on Eleanor. It is hard with such a dynamic and enthralling American icon as FDR to not move him into the center spot and even his wifeís adoration of him and her devotion through the difficulties of early-middle years of their marriage take second place to her inner search for herself and her need to express her feelings. If there is a secret journey explored here it is Eleanorís own personal journey to a simple sense of completion. Lerman, Norment and Temperley help to provide that full circle sensibility.
Eleanor: Her Secret Journey plays at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA through November 9, closing for a hiatus between August 31 and September 25. Ticket prices range from $19.50 to $44. To purchase tickets contact the box office at 413-298-5576 or go to their website at www.berkshiretheatre.org.