Of all the ways you might describe Eleanor Roosevelt, “sob sister” would probably not top the list. Yet that is the over-riding impression left by Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, Rhoda Lerman’s stage adaptation of her 1979 novel Eleanor, currently undergoing a revival at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. What’s meant to be a superficially feminist foray which, with its focus on passivity and victimhood, ultimately isn’t any such thing.
Lerman originally designed the one-woman, 75-minute show for Jean Stapleton, who first portrayed Mrs. Roosevelt in a 1982 teleplay which Lerman co-scripted, Eleanor, First Lady of the World. The mantle now falls to skilled Elizabeth Norment, who gets the patrician speech patterns just right but is hampered by her own undisguisable good looks. Got up in a tweed skirt and sensible Oxfords and doing her best to retract her chin, Norment is still a very handsome woman — the one accolade that Eleanor, who was noted for her homeliness almost as much as for her many good works, could never claim.
Lerman could conserve considerable stage time by simply getting to the point and stating the obvious, instead of treating us to Eleanor’s presumably fictional romantic reveries about a dashing sergeant who gave her the glad eye in Washington’s Union Station as she served donuts to World War I-bound doughboys. The often florid monologue, set in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of Franklin Roosevelt’s death, consists primarily of reminiscences about the early days of their marriage. Her husband, Eleanor laments, had never given her such a look — even though by that point they’d had five children. His eye strayed, instead, to what she bitterly describes as her “excessively social secretary,” Lucy Mercer. There’s massive pain to be mined in the heart of a betrayed wife, but why reduce an esteemed public figure to a soap-opera heroine? Norment makes you feel for her character’s plight even as the text corners her into a threnody of barely contained hysteria.
Among the many failings in the script — beyond the clunky opening gambit of a phone call from President Harry S. Truman and the device of having Eleanor address Franklin’s portrait — is the constant reversion to Eleanor’s younger, less confident self. For example she adopts a gee-whiz tone, she plays the wide-eyed, tongue-tied ingénue to presidential advisor Bernard Baruch, who curried her favor and became a mentor. And since Eleanor condemns the anti-Semitism rife in her social circle, why does she engage in it?
Lerman’s tin ear for irony persists in Eleanor’s reaction to the devastation she witnessed in Paris. “I too lost my heart to the war,” she recalls, describing the desperate homeless women she encountered while on sortie from the Ritz; “I too live in the basement of despair.” Indeed, in case after case, Eleanor does the great woman a disservice.