Eleanor Roosevelt, beloved First Lady, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a surprisingly layered woman. Seems she had a relationship with a (clutch the pearls!) woman! No big surprise that Baltimore Theatre Project has chosen to present Hick: A Love Story, Terry Baum’s one-woman show telling the story from the viewpoint of Lorena Hickok,a trailblazing reporter and Eleanor’s lover. Cutting-edge theatre is what Baltimore Theatre Project does best – and this production is right in their wheel house.
A celebrated journalist, Hickok (‘Hick’ to her friends) and Eleanor formed an unlikely friendship that evolved into something much stronger. Though they were never able to go public, in private their love flourished and lasted until their deaths.
During the 1932 presidential campaign, Hick was charged with covering the candidate’s wife for the Associated Press, something that had never been done. Reluctant at first, she spends her time on the campaign trail with Eleanor. She quickly finds herself falling in love with the well-bred First Lady-to-be. Hick, the product of a dirt-poor family in Wisconsin, kicked out of the house by her father at 14 upon the death of her mother, her hard-scrabble background would seem an unlikely fit with the cultured Eleanor. But fit they did, to various degrees of success.
The honeymoon phase (they actually went on one together) devolved into the realities of the times and their situation. But they stayed connected through phone calls, and, central to the play, the more than 2000 letters Eleanor wrote to Hick and the more than 1000 Hick wrote to her. In 1968, the FDR library contacted Hick and asked her to donate the letters to them. Hick: A Love Story tells the story of how the two women meet, fall in love, and try to hold onto to each other through impossible circumstance. And it’s told in large part through those letters.
Terry Baum has written an impressive portfolio of lesbian-centric plays, winning awards, drawing audiences to the theatre company (Lilith) she founded in San Francisco, and shining a light on lesbian lives. With her collaborator Pat Bond, she has constructed a well-crafted piece of theatre with Hick: A Love Story. Nicely directed by Carolyn Myers, the story is allowed to unfold in a well-paced fashion.
Viola Ruben dressed the stage with three tall, narrow flats. One depicts mastheads from period newspapers, the other two are covered in parts of pages from the actual letters from Mrs. Roosevelt. Her vision forms a perfect background to the story. The excellent choices for background music, appropriate lighting, and Audrey Howard’s wonderful sound design compliment quite well.
Ms. Baum’s performance as the title character is rather like listening to a favorite aunt reveal some big, family secret in a folksy, matter-of-fact tone. As she warms to the telling, she transitions from Hick in 1968 to 1932, shifts her body language, the pitch of her voice, even her gait, and is captivating. It’s a skilled and nuanced performance.
For this writer, the take-away of Hick: A Love Story is in the title. That it’s about a famous First Lady and a celebrated journalist was less compelling to me than the bravery of two women in the heady early days of falling in love, and the aftermath. Hats off to Baltimore Theatre Project, and this production of Hick: A Love Story. And a thank-you to Terry Baum for sharing this touching, funny, and excellent character with theatre audiences.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Hick: A Love Story plays through March 6, 2016 at The Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-8558, or purchase them online.