Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
From its opening sequence, Eleanor is snappy through its energy and constant appeal. St. Germain moves backward and forward in time through his 90 minute scripting as Harris vocalizes Eleanor's thoughts, perceptions, and self-critiquing. She also provides voice for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his mother, journalist Louis Howe, Winston Churchill, Eleanor and Franklin's daughter Anna, and others.
Lucy Mercer, the woman whose affair with Franklin Delano Roosevelt lasted for decades, is pivotal as the production unfolds. During the initial minutes, Eleanor, speaking from Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., explains that she is buried close to Franklin in Hyde Park, New York. Still, she wishes to be considered as separate from him. Yes, he was an outstanding president, but he was not an intimate partner, according to St. Germain's words. Franklin Roosevelt's betrayal and lack of honesty deeply pierced his wife's trust of him.
FDR's relationship with his mistress was evident by 1918 and Eleanor was ready to divorce him. That never happened since such action might very well have shortened his presidency. Eleanor demanded that the affair be terminated. St. Germain depicts the telling truth of this chapter late in his play.
Harriet Harris portrays Eleanor as a vulnerable yet ever-resilient soul. She was a critical thinker and outspoken with her beliefs. Henry Stram's direction allows Harris to be active: she sits, walks, even sings on one occasion. Hers is an active presence. The actress is both a Tony and Drama Desk Award winner who has played Eleanor Roosevelt at other times. She is a confidently assured performer who is unwavering and vigorous from start to finish. Harris is fully aware and in tune with this multi-dimensional character.
The set by Brian Prather features a wooden bench and a rear brick wall. Long lengths of translucent fabric are dropped to accent different locales. Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting hues provide just enough effect and variety to flavor scenographic shifts.
St. Germain has written outstanding plays for BSC such as Dancing Lessons, Dr. Ruth, All the Way, and The Best of Enemies. This current piece is immediately impactful. St. Germain presents Eleanor as strong, lively, sharp-thinking, and concerned with the betterment of her fellow human beings. Eleanor Roosevelt was widely respected and St. Germain successfully weaves in her innermost turmoil with her ability to stand up, as a pivotal woman, and speak her mind in terms of social change. A thoughtful and decent woman, she was impelled to be proactive.
Eleanor is a most timely and relevant theater experience. Presented during a contemporary epoch when women speak with force and resonance, it is a solo show which feels like a multi-cast drama. There are two stars: Mark St. Germain and Harriet Harris. He, after researching, made a choice about how to present, while she, grasping and understanding the import, cleanly delivers the playwright's dialogue. Late in the play. Eleanor says, "I've always told people that I can forgive, but I can't forget. Now, it seems the opposite. Memories come back, whether I want to remember them or not."
Eleanor runs through August 7, 2021, at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield MA. For tickets and information, call 413-236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org/.