When Harriet Harris enters as Eleanor Roosevelt in Mark St. Germain’s new play Eleanor, she seems small, especially in the looming darkness of Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Stage. Part of that impression could be that for many in the audience, this was the first experience of theater indoors in more than a year, and—for the uninitiated—the experience can be somewhat disorienting: masks not required; hand sanitizing stations at the entrance; a good portion of the seats cordoned off to enable distancing; and no programs handed out—instead, they can be accessed via a QR code.
Any weird feelings elicited by a return to live, indoor theater soon dissipate as Harris draws in the audience for a moving, masterful performance, sharing largely chronological and presumptively true stories from Eleanor Roosevelt’s life before, during, and after her marriage to her cousin (fifth cousin, once removed, to be exact) Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Eleanor, she addresses the audience from the great beyond, seated at a bench in Rock Creek Cemetery—not at Hyde Park, she tells us, where her body lies beside her husband.
Her clothes—a loose-fitting blue dress, simple overcoat and hat, sensible shoes, and a modest fur stole—are a bit dowdy, understated, an apt reflection of her persona by costume designer Alejo Vietti. Scenic designer Brian Prather evokes the park-like cemetery with projections on long, sheer hanging panels that subtly convey the changing seasons and the sentiment that this is where Eleanor comes to contemplate her life, as she did when she was alive.
And what a life it was. As Harris personifies Eleanor impersonating the people who had the most influence on her—many of them hurtful at that—we learn that she was denigrated for her looks by the press, her cousin Alice (Eleanor’s uncle Theodore’s daughter), and even her socialite mother, who died when Eleanor was eight. (She idolizes her largely absent and entirely mendacious father, an alcoholic and a philanderer, who committed suicide two years later.) Franklin’s mother, Sara Ann Delano, was exceptionally mean-spirited, objecting to plain Eleanor’s engagement to her handsome son. Even her own children ultimately betray her.
Eleanor recalls and enacts her encounters with kind people too, including journalist-turned-FDR-political-advisor Louis Howe, who convinces her not to leave her husband when she discovers Franklin’s affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer; Howe explains they will make a formidable political couple together, with him as the head and her as the heart. She agrees not to divorce on the condition that she can act with independence and he never see Mercer again, a promise that FDR tragically does not keep.
Eleanor embraces her independence, becoming first activist first lady, traveling widely, writing magazine and newspaper columns, appearing on the radio, and having her own romances as FDR works his way through a succession of secretaries. And this is the shattering part of St. Germain’s play. While Eleanor remains an inspiring figure of integrity who perseveres even as others try to put her down, the much-idolized FDR has his reputation taken down more than a few pegs. A true humanitarian, Eleanor champions society’s underdogs, pressing her husband to admit German Jewish children as refugees into the US, advocating for better treatment of African-American members of the military and the passage of anti-lynching legislation, and decrying the internment of Japanese-Americans. She even resigns from the DAR when the organization refuses to allow famed opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at the organization’s Constitution Hall due to the color of her skin, and helps arrange Anderson’s historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, a performance that is broadcast throughout the nation. Yet Franklin remains unmoved by her efforts on behalf of the downtrodden. And near the end of his life, he commits the ultimate betrayal, complicating Eleanor’s grief.
It may seem remarkable that Harris was able to take on this challenging role just a bit more than a week after the close of Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, in which she earned raves as the imperious, iconic Lady Bracknell. Fortunately, Harris was familiar with the material, having played Eleanor last fall in Barrington Stage Company’s streamed reading of the play, which surely made it easier for her to slip from Oscar Wilde’s comedic role into this demanding, dramatic one-woman biographical play. As a monologue, this play could have been monotonous, but the inclusion of other characters portrayed by Harris-as-Eleanor adds dimension and interest. The 90-minute work never drags, a tribute to Harris’s acting skills and those of the director, Henry Stram, a close friend and Julliard classmate of Harris.
Eleanor runs at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through August 7.
Images provided by Barrington Stage Company.