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St. Eleanor 

Wednesday, Feb 23 2000
Eleanor: Her Secret Journey sounds like a PBS documentary, but it's really a charming one-woman show that takes Eleanor Roosevelt's famous pluck as its subject. Jean Stapleton can't seem to escape from Eleanor roles. She's spent the last few years reviving Eleanor's memory both on TV and in theaters, and last year, strangely, she played an Englishwoman also called Eleanor in Stoppard's Indian Ink. She might as well just change her name. Of course, her actual resemblance to the first lady isn't strong, because Stapleton has an indelible style made famous by a certain other TV role; but she's good at Eleanor's scrappy, goony enthusiasm, the in-spite-of-herself determination to make her life worthwhile.

Secret Journey was adapted by the novelist Rhoda Lerman from her own novel, Eleanor. It covers the years 1918 through 1922, when Eleanor a) learned about Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer, and b) saw the aftermath in France of World War I. In those years she lost her romantic illusions about both love and war, and "liberated," as the program puts it, "her soul." Secret Journey wants to be the highest kind of American mythmaking, a durable legend forged from private modern history, and except for a jury-rigged framework involving President Truman, and a few liberties with fact, it succeeds. (The death of romance is one story that can't be told too many times, in my opinion.)

The play is set in Eleanor's living room at Val-Kill, the cottage Franklin built for her on the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park. It's 1945, and Truman sits in the White House, but FDR's dog still waits at the door for his dead master. Eleanor sympathizes. "I've waited for Franklin most of my life, so I know how it feels." Soon Truman calls to invite Eleanor to Europe for the signing of the U.N. Charter, and from our 21st-century vantage point we know she'll go with him and wind up drafting the Declaration of Human Rights. But at first she balks. She moves between pieces of plush and polished claw-foot furniture, on a bare stage, reminiscing about the years after the First World War, when her marriage imploded.

She recounts how she found love letters in Franklin's suitcase, in 1918, and read one aloud. She describes the look on his face. She tells about offering him a divorce, and how his mother -- Sara Roosevelt, always called Mama -- threatened to disinherit Franklin if he let his marriage fail. From then on, the marriage was "for the kids," for FDR's political future, and barren. Eleanor faces herself for the first time, and finds a mess of spiritual dross, a total lack of direction and courage. In a brilliant, playful conversation about alchemy, her friend says, "You are a lead person . ... [But] if a soul of lead becomes silver, it changes history."

"Oh," says Eleanor. "Am I to change history?"

The disappointing part is that this metaphor only serves the question of whether Eleanor should go to Europe with Truman. But she'd already been so busy as first lady that sitting in on the foundation of the U.N. seems more like a pleasant vacation than the fulfillment of some alchemical change in her soul. And she would do even more courageous things later, like facing down the Ku Klux Klan.

The real transformation occurs in Europe, when Eleanor sees rubblewomen in Paris and visits the vast stinking battlefields at Flanders and Ypres. "Trenches like vines," she thinks, reflecting on civilized Europe, "men like grapes." She notices that the destitute rubblewomen seem iron-souled, surviving in the streets without men. When President Wilson's adviser, Bernard Baruch, asks her opinion of the recently signed Treaty of Versailles -- "our decision to starve the Germans," he calls it -- she's tongue-tied; but when he asks what her schoolmistress might have thought, Eleanor gives a long condemnation of the treaty and fears it might lead to another war. Then Baruch points out that her schoolmistress has been dead for years.

Some of the memory-play conventions are old and maudlin; the way Eleanor narrates her memories at the beginning, like scenes in a book, feels false. But Stapleton and the script both hit a stride in Europe. A blend of vivid writing and controlled, impassioned delivery gives the middle part of Secret Journey real juice. Under John Tillinger's direction, Stapleton finds a comfortable pace, developing and closing each scene with finesse. She flubs or forgets the occasional line, but only when she loses her rhythm -- it never happens during a full-blown scene. The only other problem is that Eleanor picks up the phone to call Truman too abruptly, almost out of nowhere, and the show lurches to an end too soon.


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