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Eleanor: Her Secret Journey
Secret is the key word in Rhoda Lerman's imaginative reconstruction of three formative years in the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, developed from her 1979 novel Eleanor and warmly interpreted by Jean Stapleton. Those who expect a conventional docudrama won't get it here. This is a character and motivation based study with no dramatic arc or climax.
According to Lerman, Franklin's affair with his social secretary Lucy Mercer, combined with the horrors Eleanor viewed on World War II battlefields turned her from the life of a society wife and volunteer to the activist she became. We could do with less war stories and more Eleanor stories.
Stapleton, under the astute direction of John Tillinger, holds the audience with the power of Eleanor's personality. Her voice is similar in range to Mrs. Roosevelt's and she conveys the warmth, humor and dignity the First Lady projected.
Lerman hits on many of the key influences in Eleanor's early life: Mlle. Sylvestre, her liberal principled teacher; her autocratic mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt; Uncle Teddy Roosevelt, who encouraged her to keep Franklin home by making him President; and, of course, her marriage.
The play begins in 1945 after the President's death. Eleanor commiserates with his dog Fala, who seems to miss the President more than she does. She makes a date with State trooper Earl Miller who asks if he can bring a girl to which Eleanor agrees since it seems a good hedge against gossip. We also see her assuring her overly solicitous secretary Ms. "Tommy" Thompson that she can love many people and receive an invitation from President Harry Truman to be his United Nations representative.
The work moves on to become a memory piece. Eleanor recounts her care of Franklin when he came home sick from a tour of war-torn Europe as assistant secretary of the navy. This is highlighted by the moment when, as she read him his mail, she included one of the love letters she found from Lucy Mercer at which point Franklin says grimly"Eleanor, we have to talk about this."
Despite her dominating deficiencies as a mother-in-law, it's Sara who helps hold Eleanor's marriage together by threatening to cut off Franklin's allowance. Uncle Ted's career counseling doesn't hurt either.
Franklin takes Eleanor to Europe on his next "business" trip where his role is now that of a salesman peddling mines to the Allies. But his attempts at a romantic reconciliation are rebuffed. "When you close your eyes, do you think of HER?" cries Eleanor, pulling the sheets up to her chin.
The rest of the play is, oddly, devoted to Eleanor's horrendous tours of the battlefields and the privations of the citizens of those countries. Bernard Baruch asks her if she believes in starving the Germans. When Eleanor temporizes that she hadn't given it much thought, Baruch astutely observes that she is too timid to express her own opinions and asks her what Mlle. Sylvestre would have said. She wouldn't approve it, Eleanor declares, and he reminds her Mlle. Sylvestre was never confronted with such a decision. The words are Eleanor's own. "If your husband listens to you," he tells her, "he'll make an excellent president."
Ron Nash's set design conveys Eleanor's living room at Val-Kill with a few pieces of classic furniture and effective slide projections. These range from a photograph of the little girl, orphaned so young, to the First Lady we remember, whose warmth, stature and eagerness to help those in need justify the title she often received: "First Lady of the World.""