The difficulties of writing, directing and acting a one-man, or one-woman, play have yet to be surmounted by playwright Rhoda Lerman, director John Tillinger and valiant 75-year-old actress Jean Stapleton in their surely unintentionally lugubrious “Eleanor: Her Secret Journey.”
What is apparently meant to be a tribute to and dramatization of the young, shy tentative Eleanor Roosevelt gaining confidence, strength and power turns out to be a dated anti-war piece that’s primarily a catalog of the unspeakable horrors of the First World War, including wholesale drownings in muddy trenches, soldiers going mad and nurses committing suicide.
The fact that Lerman’s play — which grew out of her 1979 novel “Eleanor” — chronicles a first lady coping with a president who finds love in other women’s arms, does give it a certain contemporary White House spin. But if the Theater Guild is to tour “Eleanor: Her Secret Journey” as planned, a great deal of no-nonsense work needs to be done on everyone’s part.
The play makes heavy demands on Stapleton, whose energy level and limited vocal strength and range may be overextended. She projects an endearing Eleanor deeply and unshakably in love with an insensitive, smug, snobbish FDR (who called her Babs), but neither the play nor Stapleton’s performance actually evokes a secret journey from tentative youth to empowered adulthood.
And certainly far too much time is spent dwelling on WWI at the expense of other elements of Eleanor’s life and growth.
The play is set in 1945, at the end of World War II, in the living room of Eleanor’s home, Val-Kill in Hyde Park, N.Y. (Far from incidentally, Stapleton was one of the first recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal for her part in promoting the passage of a bill by Congress that made Val-Kill a national historic site.) The 60-ish Eleanor, a widow and former first lady, is looking forward to freedom.
But then President Truman phones and asks her to attend the United Nations talks in Paris as a U.S. delegate. At first she refuses, and the play takes her back, primarily, to 1918-22, when she visited WWI battle sites with FDR and “liberated her soul.” The script ends with Eleanor calling Truman back and accepting the Paris commission in the name of the permanent peace toward which FDR and she were always working.
Along the way, Eleanor chats about her husband’s mistresses, including “my excessively social secretary”; a meeting with Bernard Baruch; her constant battles with her overbearing mother-in-law, to whom almost everyone else was NOKD (not our kind, dear); and the experience of serving coffee, donuts and Bibles to WWI soldiers going overseas. The remembrances reveal a pragmatic yet sensitive streak that explains something of Eleanor’s ability to blossom and prosper.
But Stapleton’s performance lacks the backbone that the actual woman had, and though she doesn’t look too much unlike Eleanor, she does look older than 60 or 61. Also, some of the dialogue seems too flowery and “poetic” for such a woman.
The production is played out on a minimalist set of a rear scrim and a stage with a limited number of props, including a chair and phone.
Photographs of the actual Eleanor from childhood to middle-age are projected onto the scrim at the start of the play, the scrim then being used for evocative lighting and window projections.
Snippets of music ranging from “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” to Elgar and Massenet dot the production, but on opening night the music cues were often tardy, with Stapleton too often clearly waiting for them.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable woman who has been seen as a character on stage, screen and television many times, from at least as early as 1958’s “Sunrise at Campobello” and including other touring one-woman shows. This previous wide audience exposure makes it even harder for “Eleanor: Her Secret Journey” to be acceptable as it stands.