This remarkable one-woman show is a testament to the power of theater. Using language and a few props, including a movie screen, this production, written by Rhoda Lerman and directed by Rick Wade, gives a glimpse into the mind and memories of one of the most famous women in US history, as she confronts an important decision.
As the lights go up, Eleanor Roosevelt (Sue Struve) answers a ringing phone. Speaking to then-President Truman, she hesitates to accept his invitation to join the delegation to the newly-formed United Nations. After her conversation, talking to Franklin through his photograph, she argues that “they did their work already.” She then remembers her experiences just after World War One, when she travelled to France with Franklin, and later back in the States, working with women to improve conditions in society.
Sue Struve is an incredibly talented actress. She plays Eleanor perfectly, with a crisp, upper-class, almost English accent. She paints the scene so well with her descriptions that they come alive to the audience, even though she is the only one on the stage. This is helped by her spot-on impressions of other people, whether her uncle Teddy, the former President, with his older, gruff manner, who jokes that making Franklin President will “keep him home”, or a poor Frenchwoman she meets in the streets, reminding her that “we all have to go on”, or her imperious, dominating mother-in-law who thought it unbecoming for Eleanor or her husband to travel to France.
Besides Eleanor’s, though, the strongest voice in this play is that of her driver, Major Duckworth. An English veteran of the First World War, he slowly reveals to her the horrors and lasting effects of the conflict. One of the few survivors of his regiment, he explains to her when they visit a former battlefield, that many men died from drowning in the mud rather than from being shot. He remarks, “If it had been up to us, it would’ve been over by Christmas ’14. The officers wanted this war.” As the passion and anger grows in his voice, Struve walks off the stage into the audience, explaining that he sees corpses on the streets, “even though I know they aren’t real.”
As the play progresses, Eleanor finds her voice and makes a stand for what she believes in. Early on, one of her friends suggests that as she becomes herself, her soul will transmute “from lead to gold,” and that she will change history “only if you change yourself.” Rather meek and quiet at the beginning, she at first can only give her opinion of the Treaty of Versailles’ effect on the Germans through what she imagines the headmistress of her boarding school might think. By the end, she can tell her mother-in-law, who disapproves of her having her activist friends over for tea, that she will have whoever she likes in her house whenever she chooses. It is a powerful transformation, and wonderful to see.
Joe Powell, Sr.’s set design is simple, clean, and effective, with a rocking chair, stool, small desk and chair, carpet, and chair. The most interesting part of the set is the screen behind and above it, which displays various images throughout the play. Some are photos of historical people, such as President Truman, and the financier Bernard Baruch, who speaks with Eleanor. Others are photos of soldiers marching through the battlefields in World War One, and of the parades celebrating the victory. At the very end, inspirational quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt appear on the screen. These displays help to enhance Eleanor’s reminisces, reminding the audience of where she is in history.
Beth Terranova does wonderful work as Costume Designer. Eleanor’s outfit is a plain floral print dress with a strand of pearls and high-heeled shoes. It helps focus the attention on Eleanor’s words, not her appearance.
Frank Florentine’s Lighting Design helps serve the mood of the play. It changes as Eleanor travels around the stage, darkening when she sits in the rocking chair, for example, or to mark the end of one memory and the start of another. It is a strong part of the play.
Rick Wade has expertly directed this production. Eleanor travels around the stage naturally, using every chair and stool. She mimes ladling soup to soldiers at a canteen in DC. At two points in telling her story, she turns her back to the audience, and yet she can be heard perfectly, and both times seem completely organic to the story and her character. With so many different voices being heard, it is hard to believe only one person is on stage.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey is a powerful and thought-provoking drama. There are only nine performances, so be sure to catch Sue Struve’s extraordinary performance.
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.