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First Among Men

From Edith to Eleanor: Jean Stapleton creates an affecting first lady

Change is the metaphor that pervades Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, in which Jean Stapleton gives an affecting and affectionate portrait of first lady and Hillary Clinton precursor Eleanor Roosevelt. Indeed the young society wife and mother transformed herself into one of the most influential people of the Twentieth Century. Despite her birth as an aristocrat, Roosevelt became a champion of the working class, the immigrant, and the politically besieged. The downtrodden in America rarely have had such a gracious or powerful spokesperson. By the middle of FDR's first term, the once-shy debutante was more popular than her husband.

By odd coincidence multiple Emmy Award-winning actress Stapleton shares a similar relationship with her most popular costar. During her reign as Edith, wife to the bigoted, chauvinistic Archie Bunker on the groundbreaking TV sitcom All in the Family, Stapleton recently told an interviewer: "He got all the hate mail. I got the fan letters." Who better, then, to bring Eleanor to life and perhaps illuminate the nature of marriage, womanhood, and public influence? Stapleton, a formidable and inventive performer, sails through the hour-and-a-half solo show as though it were no more work than a vigorous game of tennis. Her skill is too supple to disappear behind a character, however. A consummate technician, she gives a performance that falls somewhere between the miniaturism of Julie Harris and the bold strokes of, say, Colleen Dewhurst.

From a rather limited physical vocabulary, Stapleton articulates a rich expanse of human experience, transforming her own inimitable verbal oddities to fit a new face. The elongated nasal syllables with which Stapleton endowed the passive Edith Bunker somehow also lend themselves to the characterization of the bold and lively first lady. An aunt of mine who, as a child, saw Eleanor on a Washington, D.C., golf course, spoke of the event as though she had seen an angel, so great was the first lady's spell. While Stapleton isn't magical, she certainly is charismatic.

Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, adapted by University of Miami alum Rhoda Lerman from her 1979 novel Eleanor, is full of more idiosyncrasies than secrets. The first lady's family history is quite well-known, as is her heartbreak over her husband's affair with her social secretary, her social activism, her friendship with presidential advisor and intellectual Bernard Baruch, and her antagonistic relationship with Franklin's overbearing mother, Sara. Recent biographies have even reported Eleanor's dalliances with journalist Lorena Hickock and others. The only secret left might be the secret of what made Eleanor tick, something with which the playwright takes great liberties by inventing dialogue for the first lady, the president, and those around them, including uncle Teddy Roosevelt, and Roosevelt successor Harry Truman. Stapleton, who performs alone as Eleanor, also does marvelous impersonations of these characters.

The play's strength is that much of the dialogue, as well as the long monologue Stapleton delivers to the audience, is compelling and evocative. Lerman's talent for storytelling all but makes up for the rather odd chapter of the first lady's life she chooses to illuminate. The play opens in 1945, just after the death of FDR, while Eleanor is contemplating a return to private life. We hear her speak on the phone to President Truman, turning down his invitation to serve at the United Nations, then using this decision as a jumping-off point to visit some of the earlier scenes of her life, most of them set during or just after World War I.

Rather than proffering a backstage peek at the White House during the Roosevelt administration (during which time Eleanor, like no other first lady before her, maintained her own circle of advisers and politicians), the play gives us a glimpse into the life and mind of the young Eleanor, whose husband was then a mere assistant secretary to the navy. ("Make him president," his aging Uncle Theodore told Eleanor years later, when she sought advice about her husband's philandering. "That should keep him home for a while.") Like many Washingtonians, Eleanor was enchanted by the notion of the First World War. "War is passion," she asserts. "I was awakened by war; the city was awakened."

Not until she visits Paris in 1918 does she grasp war's reality. Here and in the countryside, she sees young widows begging. "With men, without men, we have to live," one of them says to her. Horrified by the evidence of carnage, including smoldering corpses left in the field, Eleanor watches women "scratch in the dirt for what is left of their lives," noting that, "shells, grenades, skulls rode in their aprons." Whether Eleanor actually said these words or whether Lerman put them in her mouth, the pictures that emerge are powerful ones. No less than the ones from the story of her return to New York with Franklin aboard a troop ship. As the boat nears the celebrations in the harbor, Eleanor watches as two army nurses throw themselves overboard, repulsed by such gaiety after surviving the horrors of the battlefields.

Lerman contends that Eleanor's greatness lay not just in her being born into a changing world but in her ability to be transformed by her experiences. That she was able to see a farther horizon than her husband, hemmed in by political necessity and perhaps a smaller vision, now seems obvious. Remarkably Eleanor was able to transcend a bigoted upbringing in which, among other things, women were not supposed to have opinions, much less voice them or break convention. In the social set to which the Roosevelts belonged, for example, Jews were shunned. ("Our friends refer to them in public as 'Orientals,' and in private [as] much worse -- 'Not our kind.'") Of her friendship with Wilson adviser Baruch, one of the first people to take her seriously as a political force, she says, "He was very much my kind."

Eleanor also understood that her husband's own class arrogance would stand in the way of his election. She campaigned to have him appear to be a man of the people and not a member of a powerful American social and political dynasty. Lerman's portrait of her is constructed along impressionist lines, less an articulate argument than a bundle of suggestions. To Hillary-watchers the playwright's most intriguing idea is that the Roosevelts' common abiding interest in preventing a slaughter like the First World War is what kept them together and somewhat united through a difficult marriage. (Eleanor had offered Franklin a divorce when she discovered his infidelity. Her mother-in-law, fearing scandal and perhaps political ruin, nixed it.) Stuck with each other, they were able to construct something less sinister than a mere political marriage and certainly more powerful than what either could have accomplished alone.

Onstage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Stapleton's Eleanor is by turns powerful and vulnerable. Given a saint to play, she pushes the buttons of comedy so that the woman who emerges is less than warm but more than a self-effacing wallflower. John Tillinger's direction is seamless, and the minimalist set, a combination of period furniture onstage and slides projected onto the back wall, serves the show well (though why no one ever complains that the perspective is always skewed in this theater, in which the management routinely seats at least four rows of ticket holders under the proscenium arch, is beyond me). Eleanor's life and legacy will continue to fascinate us, long after the Roosevelt political dynasty fades away. Stapleton's performance is an elegant compliment, indeed.


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