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Compass Rose Theater’s Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey

Meet the World’s Most Admired Woman in her formative years

Sue Struve portrays Eleanor Roosevelt during her transition from naïveté to insight, struggling with both worldview and marriage fraying at the seams. <<photo by Stan Barouh>>

When Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, the widow of the 26th President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was called by the New York Times The World’s Most Admired Woman. The longest-serving first lady, she was also the tallest until Michelle Obama, at 5'11", met her mark. At a time when political wives were expected to be seen and not heard, she was an outspoken humanitarian, feminist, unionist and champion of racial reform. In an election year focused on another famously civic-minded first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey, is a dynamic opener for Compass Rose Studio Theater’s sixth season.
    Based on a 1979 novel author Rhoda Lerman referred to as a fictional autobiography of Eleanor’s life from 1918 to 1922, this one-woman-show debuted in 1998 with Jean Stapleton. Composed of memories sparked by a phone call from President Truman asking her to speak at the newly formed United Nations, the script covers Eleanor’s formative years at home and in Paris during her husband’s tenure as assistant secretary of the Navy. An instructive and intimate peek at her privileged and turbulent life after the war to end all wars, this production is animated with great sensitivity by local favorites Sue Struve and director Rick Wade. Introspective and poetic, it examines her transition from naïveté to insight as she struggles with both worldview and marriage fraying at the seams.
    Here we see a dutiful woman manipulated by a domineering mother-in-law, a depressed wife betrayed by her unfaithful husband, a blushing mother of six as object of a GI’s flirtation, a sympathetic observer of desperate working women, war widows and soldiers haunted by PTSD.
    Now we see her engaged in political dialogue with the greatest minds of her time: Uncle Teddy Roosevelt, General Blackjack Pershing, Dorothy Strait and historian Henry Adams (of that other old presidential dynasty), who likens her to lead that turns to silver under pressure.
    We also meet Bernard Baruch (Woodrow Wilson’s confidante) who sends her roses and whom her husband refers to as a Hebrew and NOKD — not of our kind, dear. Quotes such as this, sprinkled throughout, convey the surprising notion that Franklin was not only an anti-Semite but also a ­chauvinistic jerk.
    Altogether we have a modern take on a pedigreed woman of a different time, as seen through the filter of a century’s progress and skewed to lionize her.
    For all that this monologue addressed, there is much that it does not: namely FDR’s 1921 polio affliction and Eleanor’s subsequent role as guardian of his vital image — and her conjectured bisexuality (which was addressed in a different drama following the publication of her personal letters in the year this play debuted.)
    Struve commands the stage, navigating a dozen speech patterns and physical postures as she segues through a parade of characters. Slender as the young Eleanor and dressed in a burgundy floral silk dress, Struve nevertheless conveys the matriarchal solidity of the elder’s patrician speech patterns and aristocratic mannerisms. Yet when she inhabits Teddy Roosevelt, you can see and hear his sportsman’s swagger.
    The set is simple: four pieces representing different times and locations, a phone and photo of Franklin and a slide show of personalities and headlines projected above the stage. Indeed, there is no place for Struve to hide, but she does not have to. These 70 minutes (without intermission) feels like a fascinating 50.
    I recommend this show to feminists, history buffs and social optimists of all stripes. This encore production, which debuted last summer at Compass Rose’s Play Festival, appears for a limited engagement only through October 9.


Director: Rick Wade. Stage manager and costumer: Beth Terranova. Lights: Frank Florentine. Sound: Kit Boidy and Ruth Cowgill.
 
Playing thru Oct. 9, FSa8pm, Su 2pm, Compass Rose Theater Company, 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $38 with discounts, rsvp: www.compassrosetheater.org.