Jean Stapleton as Eleanor Roosevelt: The idea seems a delicious match of under-utilized actress and under-dramatized icon. But “Eleanor: Her Secret Journey,” which the actress has been performing since 1998 and which is in Los Angeles for a three-week run at the Canon Theater, never journeys beyond the idea stage. “Eleanor” is an empty shell of a show, and while Stapleton’s presence is pleasant enough, the actress seems lost at times, pacing without purpose and struggling to find the next anecdote. Novelist Rhoda Lerman’s craftless script and John Tillinger’s shockingly poor direction are the primary culprits, with Eleanor Roosevelt a most unfortunate victim.
The play is set in 1945, after Franklin’s death, but consists primarily of Eleanor’s recollections of the time between 1918 and 1922, when she learned the lessons that supposedly guided the remainder of her life. The show is framed in this way: At the beginning, Eleanor receives a call from President Truman, asking her to participate in the peace talks in Paris. She declines, insisting her public life is over.
Eleanor launches into her memories of period after WWI, when, in an effort to save their marriage, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy FDR took his betrayed wife to Paris, where her naive vision of war as “passion” began to crumble and her interest in human rights was born. By the end, of course, Eleanor has talked herself into accepting Truman’s offer after all.
The four years that represent the focus here may in fact have been an instrumental character-building time for the future First Lady, but that doesn’t make them interesting. Eleanor is a passive participant, a relatively minor character in her own life at this point. What comes across in this depiction is how naive Eleanor was, and what an empty aristocratic cad her husband was.
The most interesting character discussed is Major Duckworth, an English veteran who escorts Eleanor around Paris and returns with the Roosevelts to America. Crippled physically and emotionally by war, Duckworth would be a terrific role for an actor to play. But here, we get Eleanor speaking in someone else’s voice.
While Stapleton smartly doesn’t try to go too far in this, transforming Eleanor into a mimic, the actress doesn’t delineate clearly enough who is speaking when. The result is muddy storytelling.
Part of the blame for this confusion, and for the relentlessly monotonous pace of the evening, must fall on director Tillinger, who seems to have avoided making any real choices at all.
Other than lighting designer Ron Nash’s projections onto a rear screen, the set — the design is uncredited –consists of three basic playing spaces: a bench stage left, a chair and telephone in the center and a writing table stage right. This last piece is never used, which is bizarre.
Ultimately, we’re given barely a glimpse of how the essential groundwork of these early years played out in Eleanor’s later achievements. The play takes for granted that Eleanor Roosevelt was an important, fascinating figure instead of depicting why or how she was so.
Having Stapleton read Eleanor’s own writings would have been far more revealing, and more entertaining, than this tedious effort.