Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was First Lady of the United States for 12 years and redefined that office. She was an intelligent, dynamic, active woman who, because of her relationship with her husband, helped shaped American politics and history. Act II Playhouse has brought to the stage Mark St. Germain’s one-woman show, “Eleanor” with Penelope Reed giving a strong performance in this 90 minute biopic, which is both a history of the times through Eleanor’s eyes, but also a look behind the scenes at her private life and the nature of the relationship between her and the President.
It begins in 1918, when Eleanor is unpacking the suitcase of Franklin and discovers, in letters from Lucy Mercer, that her husband has been having an affair with Eleanor’s secretary. Divorce would end FDR’s political career, and Eleanor and Franklin are convinced by his domineering mother Sara and by advisor Louis Howe, to remain together. But Eleanor insists upon three things- that she can live her life as she sees fit, that they would have separate bedrooms, and most of all, that he would never see Lucy Mercer again.
FDR, who was Secretary of the Navy, then becomes the vice-presidential candidate in the losing 1920 election. A year later, he is stricken by polio, and can never walk again without assistance and crutches. Eleanor becomes indispensable. She becomes his eyes and ears and they hide his paralysis from the public.
The play is filled with the facts of the history of Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency and the presidency itself. In fact, it is a little top-heavy with history, though my friend, who saw it with me, said she learned a ton. I found the history to be little more than what one can get on Wikipedia. I, would have preferred learning more about Eleanor herself. I was fascinated to learn that her mother died when Eleanor was 8. Her father, who she calls the real love of her life, died two years later. An alcoholic and probably a womanizer, he committed suicide.
I wanted to know more- about her relationship with lesbian journalist, Lorena Hickok and with other women. I wanted to understand Eleanor’s anti-semitism early in her life. I wanted to know more about how she did connect to Franklin. When she tells us that she was not a very good mother and was distant from her children, I wanted more information about what she was thinking that could take us beyond the legend that she was.
It is a challenge to condense a person’s life into 90 minutes. I’d seen the outstanding production that Act II did a few years ago with another one-woman show, “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” also written by St. Germain. In the end, the success of such a show depends on the actor. Penelope Reed is much more attractive than Eleanor. She is slimmer. She wasn’t given the famous “overbite” of the First Lady. She didn’t speak like Eleanor in voice or rhythm. But if I didn’t “know” Eleanor Roosevelt from newsreels and from when I did see her on tv when I was a child, I wouldn’t have cared. I felt the same way when David Oyelowo portrayed Martin Luther King Jr., in “Selma.” He was good, but he wasn’t King. Perhaps it is unfair of me to expect Reed, who gives a fine performance, to expect so much.
There is much to learn about Eleanor and the times she lived in Act II’s production. It is presented effectively. I had hoped for something more powerful, more emotional, more personal to enrich it more from playwright, St. Germain.
“Eleanor” at Act II Playhouse, 56, E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA 19002, 215-654-0200, www.act2.org. Thru November 20, 2022.