It is surprisingly rare that theater asserts its usefulness as it did for me Tuesday night with Barrington Stage’s production of Mark St. Germain’s “Eleanor” starring the irreplaceable Harriet Harris. Driving over the mountain, we caught up on the day’s news, specifically the testimony in front of the 1/6 committee by the Capitol police who were attacked and the absence of all but two Republicans and their continued denial and obfuscation of the event.
We entered the Boyd/Quinson Main Stage and took our seats facing an empty bench and exposed brick back wall of the theater. Our anticipation and expectations for this actress in this part would be met and rewarded ten-fold. Directed by the actor, Henry Stram, Ms. Harris wanders onstage looking for a place to rest. Nine sheer curtains descend magically from the flies which will carry many, mostly abstract, beautiful projections of leaves throughout the evening. Set design by Brian Prather, Lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg and costume designed by Alejo Vietti. Eleanor, explains that we are in Rock Creek Cemetery and she is on a quest to find out who she is.
Ms. Harris is terrific, energetic company throughout the evening, telling of how she became the longest serving First Lady and assumed the mantle of Liberalism which she gives a full-throated shout out. Her Eleanor is a bit of a stand-up as well, assuming over a dozen characters. Besides her immediate family, there are a couple of scene stealers with Churchill and Louis Howe. She and Franklin’s advisor have a symbiotic relationship and develop a contest of trying to top each other’s worst publicity photos.
Her homeliness is addressed directly and could be the beginning of her antagonistic relationship with her mother-in-law Sarah. “Our lives were a fairy tale, we even had a witch.” Ms. Harris conveys Eleanor’s greatest strengths in facing some painfully humiliating circumstances. The discovery of Franklin’s numerous affairs, especially with Eleanor’s former personal secretary, Lucy Mercer, feeds a painful transformation, especially when Eleanor learns that Ms. Mercer Rutherford was with Franklin when he died in Warm Springs, GA and the assignations were arranged by Roosevelt’s daughter Anna.
We, of course, get much more of the country’s history through this fascinating couple; from Uncle Teddy walking Eleanor down the aisle on St. Patrick’s Day (he was in town for the parade) to Eleanor’s war relief work and her years after Franklin’s death when she was appointed by Harry Truman as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly where she would become the First Chairperson on the Commission of Human Rights, instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Harriet Harris could not be bested in the role of Mark St. Germain’s Eleanor. She is a mother to comfort us, a confidante, a fierce champion of civil rights and somewhat surprisingly, her own sharpest critic. It is extraordinary work by this Tony Award winner and I feel lucky to have witnessed it. The usefulness of this piece of theater salvaged my evening and convinced me there are still peerless craftsmen, committed artisans speaking truth to power. The theater, at least, has powerful forces working for the good of the country and its ideals.
Tickets available: www.barringtonstageco.org