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Theater Review

'Eleanor' Takes Stock of Her Life and Passions

Theater * In a one-woman show, Jean Stapleton recalls the life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt. The play, though, could be a bit more focused.

September 19, 2000|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of the many things that Eleanor Roosevelt taught modern America, the most important might well have been that one person can make a difference.

She herself certainly did. Operating through, beside and sometimes around her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she worked tirelessly to promote social welfare and civil rights, challenging America to live up to its ideals of compassion and equality.

In studying this remarkable woman, the new play "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey" also explores the country she so profoundly influenced. "Does event shape character," Jean Stapleton's Eleanor asks early in the one-woman show at the Canon Theatre, "or does character shape event?"

Radiant with a quiet yet intense energy, Stapleton's Eleanor ruminates on events that shaped her thinking and helped to propel her from background idealist to front-line social revolutionary. This transformation occurred just as the United States was approaching a turning point in its history, and Eleanor's life, by example, helped to elevate America as it evolved from follower of Old World customs into a new kind of world leader.

Even at a mere 80 minutes, however, Rhoda Lerman's script takes too long to get where it's going. Often clever and always filled with beautiful language, it heads in unexpected directions, which seems invigorating until we realize, mid-journey, that we've wandered off the main thoroughfare and into dark, circuitous side streets.

The play meets up with Eleanor in 1945, soon after her husband's death during his fourth term as president. America is just pulling itself out of World War II and trying to shake off the horrors of that conflict. Eleanor, at 60, is also emerging from darkness. Despite the gratification of her high-profile work as first lady, she has long craved a life lived less in the spotlight. And after 40 years of a marriage that had devolved early on from romantic devotion to political partnership, she seems eager to continue her life as a truly independent woman.

Then the phone rings. It's President Truman, asking her to be a delegate to the newly formed United Nations. Thank you, but no, she politely but firmly replies. "My public life is quite over."

We know otherwise, for she not only became a delegate but, after winning the respect of her initially skeptical male counterparts, was chosen to chair the commission drafting one of the organization's most important documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As President Truman's offer begins to sink in, Eleanor thinks aloud so that we can eavesdrop.

As we well remember from her years on "All in the Family," Stapleton possesses a high upper register in her speaking voice, which she uses to approximate Eleanor's own high-pitched voice. And Stapleton bears enough of a passing resemblance to the real thing that we can accept the illusion without her having to resort to elaborate makeup or prosthetics.

She punctuates Eleanor's lighter thoughts with an infectious 'HA-haaaa," and in moments of contentment, she stands with her hands pressed to her sides and her face turned to the sky with a smile so bright it seems to challenge the sun to outshine it. But when storm clouds move in, they move in fast, under the gentle but astute direction of John Tillinger ("Love Letters," "Sylvia").

FDR's affairs, as well as Eleanor's strong attachments to women and men, are plainly dealt with. Other names, though, go rushing by awfully quickly, making some of Eleanor's history difficult to follow for those who haven't read the biographies or seen the documentaries.

Eleanor's memories of a trip to Paris just after World War I, when FDR was assistant secretary of the Navy, form the bulk of Lerman's script, developed from her 1979 novel "Eleanor." The inhumanity Eleanor learned about on that trip, from the soldiers sacrificed on muddy, bloody battlefields to the civilians left destitute in the war's aftermath, is meant to go a long way toward explaining her later social activism.

Yet these events pale when compared to historical record: Eleanor's stare-downs with good ol' boys in Democratic leadership who were trying to railroad the party's women; her witnessing of deprivations in the dead mining town of Scott's Run, W. Va.; her help in organizing Marian Anderson's triumph over racism in a concert at the Lincoln Memorial; her bravery in venturing into KKK territory with a bounty on her head. Any of these seem as though they would make a more worthy backdrop for Stapleton's inspiring performance than the one we're given.

*

* "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey," Canon Theatre, 205 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Oct. 8. $40-$50. (310) 859-2830. Running time: 80 minutes. No intermission

Jean Stapleton: Eleanor Roosevelt

Presented by Charles H. Duggan in association with Philip Langner. Written by Rhoda Lerman. Directed by John Tillinger. Costume: Noel Taylor. Production supervisor and lights: Ron Nash. Sound: Aural Fixation.

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