All right. Let me get to the hard part first. Had Rhoda Lerman’s play, now being given a vigorous and effective production at Compass Rose Theater, simply been called A Secret Journey it would be a boffo tale of the timid wife of an aspiring politician who learns about the horrors of war and breaks free from her controlling family. The Eleanor Roosevelt I saw in Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Production, however, is not the Eleanor Roosevelt I have come to know through history.
This is not the fault of Sue Struve, who plays the former First Lady beautifully, or of director Rick Wade. It is the direct responsibility of Lerman, who appears to have confabulated some incidents in order to support a point of view which has little support in history — that Eleanor Roosevelt’s experiences in World War I and its aftermath made her a pacifist.
I say this knowing that Lerman’s play is adapted from her own novel, Eleanor, which she researched for three years and which won plaudits for its historical accuracy (there is an opera as well). But the Eleanor Roosevelt that walks this stage is a dithering, indecisive woman, in constant hand-wringing distress, the opposite of the prototype for feminism that she became. She giggles and blushes like a schoolgirl — she is in her early thirties at this point, married and the mother of five children — when a handsome harmonica-playing sergeant makes eyes at her while she dishes out soup at a canteen. Later, while touring post-war, her driver, a British Major named Duckworth, describes his war experiences in increasingly ghoulish terms until he eventually ends up at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane. Eleanor is horrified, and learns the play’s central lesson: victory at war is not to be celebrated, but mourned, and the returning soldiers are not heroes but victims.
Her husband, now thought by historians to be one of the three greatest American presidents, is here portrayed as a cruel, arrogant man who browbeat Eleanor and reveled in ethnic, class and racial exclusivity, referring to people as “NOKD” (not our kind, dear) and calling female activists “she-men”.
In reality, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the niece of one President and the wife of another, was a shrewd, observant, resourceful woman who not only changed our concept of the Presidential spouse but served as a prototype for contemporary women. She was born a member of the New York aristocracy but not conventionally attractive, and her mother abused her for it. Her father was a raging alcoholic; both parents were dead before her eleventh birthday. Notwithstanding this history, which would be soul-crushing for some people, she was vivacious, outgoing and public-spirited, giving dancing and calisthenics lessons in the slums of New York’s east side when she was in her teens.
She married her father’s fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (they had great-great-great-great grandparents in common — the Roosevelts kept track of such things), when she was 19, and was thereafter a significant part of her husband’s political ambitions. Franklin cheated on her with her social secretary — a point Lerman makes in the play — and when Eleanor found out, the marriage hit a crisis point, with divorce on the table. They agreed to stay together and, though no longer bedmates, they became a powerful political team, especially after FDR contracted polio and lost the use of his legs.
Eleanor was an outspoken public advocate for Franklin, and for her own political causes. He depended heavily on her for political advice, and supported her initiatives unless to do so would cost him intolerable political capital. She was the first person to review his first inaugural address, and during his presidency she held hundreds of press conferences and wrote a daily column. They both had discreet relationships outside the marriage, apparently with each other’s consent.
She was, in short, a distaff Bull Moose, sharp, aggressive and fully in control. She knew social convention and observed its form, but not its substance. Not even her husband — arguably the most powerful American President in history — could control her. She said and did what she thought right. Of course, like all thinking people, she hated war. But she knew that war was sometimes necessary, and when her husband presided over America’s involvement with the most violent war in human history, Eleanor was a strong supporter of America’s war effort.
The historical FDR is different than the glimpse we get of him in this play, too. In fact, his ability to relate to people who were not his kind was the key to his fabulous political success. This was true even during the period of the play (he was the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice-President in 1920).
The play, covering three years of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life (framed by an incident which occurred shortly after FDR’s death in 1945), relies heavily on two events for which I can find no evidence in history — the flirtation with the harmonica-playing soldier, which ends in a soap opera-ish twist, and a bizarre incident on the troop ship carrying the Roosevelts home from Europe.
All right. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? In a word, excellent. Lerman has some beautifully evocative prose; her story is full of dynamic tension, which loops effortlessly at the climax back to the opening. Duckworth is a fully realized character, and with a few brief lines Lerman beautifully establishes FDR, FDR’s mother, the nameless harmonica player, and the widow of a murdered Wobblie who Eleanor meets at a convocation of the Women’s Trade Union League.
Sue Struve plays all these characters, and she is marvelous. As Eleanor, she makes a gesture toward imitation (in particular, the slight over-articulation which characterized Mrs. Roosevelt’s speaking style) but does not attempt to mimic the remarkable voice, and though she dresses in period clothes (Beth Terranova does the costume design) she is not made up to resemble her character.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
Periodically she is called upon to provide the voice of other characters, and she does so with dispatch and without fuss; adding a slight growl to her voice and biting off the words as FDR; lowering her pitch and slowing her speech for Franklin’s formidable mother; adopting a dead-on Cockney accent and a thumping, uneven pacing for Duckworth. A good actor can make a script better, and clearer. Struve is a good actor.
Lerman appears to have shaved twenty minutes off her original script (Jean Stapleton played Mrs. Roosevelt in the original production), to advantage. Director Rick Wade moves things along nicely. There were no tedious or awkward moments. I really enjoyed the play. I just wish it was about somebody else.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey by Rhoda Lerman. Directed by Rick Wade . Featuring Sue Struve . Lighting design by Frank Florentine . Set design by Joe Powell, Sr. . Costume design and stage manager Beth Terranova . Sound design by Kit Boidy and Mary Ruth Cowgill . Produced by Compass Rose Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor .