Review: ‘Hick: A Love Story’ at 1st Stage

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What was hidden away as a purposefully invisible sidebar of decades-old history, is brought to well-deserved notice by 1st Stage’s inaugural Logan Festival of Solo Performances. With Hick: A Love Story, local theater-goers have a superior production of cultural significance about an intimate relationship likely unknown to many.

Terry Baum from Lilith Theatre, San Francisco, 2014. Photo courtesy of 1st Stage.

Hick: A Love Story is an absorbing work written by Terry Baum with Pat Bond. The short-run production is directed by Carolyn Myers.

Featuring Baum, in a solo performance full of love, pain, and eloquence, Hick sheds a crisp fine light on the bonds of intimacy between Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States, and Lorena Hickok (aka Hick), a senior Associated Press reporter and the first woman with a byline in The New York Times.

The real relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok came to broader light when over 2000 letters written by Roosevelt to Hickok were unsealed in 1978 to become open to the public. Hickok had saved the letters for decades; then she donated them to the Roosevelt Estate in 1968 with a proviso in her will that they could not be opened until ten years after her death. The Estate provided permission for the letters to be quoted verbatim in Hick: A Love Story.

The arc of Hick: A Love Story begins in 1968 as an older Hick begins to weave her tale, using quotes from treasured letters from Eleanor Roosevelt (voiced by Paula Barish). Soon Hick has taken herself and the audience back to 1932 at the depths of the Depression with the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated for, and then winning, the Presidency. Hick, an Associated Press reporter, has the assignment to follow Eleanor Roosevelt. Her attraction to Roosevelt is immediate even as she wonders to herself about the propriety of such an attraction, both on a personal level and as a reporter.

Using Eleanor Roosevelt’s own eloquent words, especially read by the unseen Paula Barish, Hick: A Love Story clearly depicts the attraction as mutual. Quickly the relationship becomes one of deep heartfelt intimacy and intellectual even-handedness.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s affecting, written correspondence is a point of departure as Hick journeys through the dark Depression era of the 1930s with the times so full of strict cultural norms about personal relationships and the major political battles of those times about how to get American out of its economic woes. It was a time when the Democrat Party used “Happy Days Are Here Again” as its theme.

The spirit of those dark days is on display by Baum when, as Hick, she nearly spits out her contempt for bankers and rich folk who still had their dough. For it was a time when regular working-class and rural folk were living a life of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”

Terry Baum from Lilith Theatre, San Francisco, 2014. Photo courtesy of 1st Stage.

In her 90-minute solo performance, Baum is mesmerizing, depicting the relationship of Hick and Eleanor Roosevelt from Hick’s point of view. Baum takes the audience through the trials and tribulations of the two women when at any moment the Buzzfeed of those days, say Walter Winchell, could drop a piece in his newspaper column that would devastate each of them, reduce their loving relationship to fodder for gossip, and kill off the socially progressive administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

What struck me deeply were moments when Baum, as Hick, described herself with terms of contempt and loathing like a sharp whip across her back, using words such as “pervert,” “monster,” and “homosexual.” Baum’s Hick was also masterfully expressive in her reaction to being called out as “fat and masculine.” And then, as if from the voice of an angel, the comforting voice of Roosevelt is heard. A voice with tenderness and love calling Hick “My Dear One.” Here was voice and tone and feelings that changed the physical being of Baum from slumped shoulders and weary watery eyes, to a brightness of being respected and loved.

Another of the many moments that Baum brought to a physical presence include her strong will and impulsive nature. Portraying a bad time at Yosemite when tourists inadvertently ruined the vacation of Hick and Eleanor Roosevelt is one of growing self-awareness. But, no matter what, the tender relationship between them continued, with Hick even having some small quarters in the White House not far from Eleanor Roosevelt.

Viola Ruben’s set design and Pablo Santiago’s lighting for Hick: A Love Story give the production a place for movement. This is no sedentary sit on a chair and do a monologue performance. There are three large columns across the stage. There are tables and chairs that are made good use of providing for movement and action. As for costumes, there are basically two. There is Hick in her older years, in a nondescript bathrobe, and Hick in her prime, as she is during the majority of the production. In her 1930’s glory, Hick is attired in a natty three-piece suit.

Sound design by Audrey Howard is terrific. Pre-show music includes the likes of 1930’s Big Bands to set the right mood. I was totally infatuated by one particular sound design element. It was what sounded to me like the moving of a radio dial picking up the wide gamut of music and regional voices representing 1930’s America. It made the production feel “universal” to me.

Now, the last scene of Hick was an intellectual stinger. It is 1968, and the older Hick debates herself about destroying the private correspondence from Eleanor Roosevelt or saving it for the Roosevelt archives. She frames the issue very personally. If the letters are archived, Lorena Hickok will not be forgotten to history. If the letters are archived, others will have the opportunity to know of her loving relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, who died in 1963.

Hick’s questioning became a dilemma even as we, the audience, know that the current existence of the letters shows Hick’s decision. While she made her decision, the quandary, to me, about the privacy of personal relationships is universal. After all, don’t we all have the most private information of the people we love and have loved in deeply personal relationships?

There are only a few remaining performance of Hick: A Love Story. So, when you see this invigorating and tender, please let me know what you think.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Hick: A Love Story plays through July 16, 2017, at 1st Stage – 524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

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