Strong women in politics are nothing new to a 21st century observer, but before there was a Hillary, a Nancy or a Betty, there was Eleanor Roosevelt.
In an intimate and detailed look at the character of the former First Lady, the Ashland Contemporary Theatre (ACT) production of "Eleanor Roosevelt: The Secret Journey" by Rhoda Lerman explores the many facets of Mrs. Roosevelt that make her such a fascinating aspect of the American historical landscape. Much of the play deals with her understanding of, and partnership with, our 32nd President, as well as the horrific effects on her psyche (and by implication, the psyche of the American people) brought on as a result of living through two World Wars.
There are flaws in the play, to be sure; there is scant evidence of Mrs. Roosevelt's controversial history with Lorena Hickok; Ms. Lerman seems determined to paint Eleanor as a traditional woman when it comes to her private life, despite her robust feminist and populist ideals on the world stage.
The dance of power between the First Lady and her husband is given so much attention that the viewer might be lead into thinking that there were no indiscretions on the part of Mrs. Roosevelt; FDR is called out during the play for his wanderings, but Eleanor doesn't seem to recollect her own extra-marital activity. As such, a major part of her life remains fundamentally unexamined, and is conspicuous in its absence.
Despite that sticky wicket, the play as a whole shines. Cynthia Tank, an ACT regular who stands out reliably in ensemble pieces, is an absolute treasure in this one-woman show. Tank, who is age appropriate to the character, brings an authentic flintiness to the role of Eleanor. She is stunning to watch, at once intimate and imperious, unflappable and empathetic.
Tank has a real gift for stepping into Eleanor's shoes. She nails the flinty mid-Atlantic accent that is now all but extinct. She prowls the boards in her tweed skirt and pearls, seeming to engage with every audience member individually. In what seems to be a cheeky wink towards FDR's "fireside chats," director Jeannine Grizzard has a gas fireplace burning onstage for the duration of the show; smart patrons may interpret this as a statement of leadership equality between Eleanor and Franklin.
The rest of the set is simple, elegant and intimate. Lighting was particularly well handled; the small space that was offered by Grizzly Peak Winery for the staging of this play gave ACT not a lot to work with, and they handled that challenge spectacularly well.
Speaking of small spaces, the show has been such a success that it was sold out long before I arrived to put in a review. So in demand were tickets on the day of my matinee that patrons were moved around a couple of times in order to accommodate an overflow audience. Grizzard has since extended the run; as such, a show that could not be seen due to demand will be restaged at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26; 8 p.m. Saturday, April 1; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at the Ashland Community Center on Winburn Way.
I'm not a fan of cliched critic statements, but in the case of this show, it is sincerely suggested that you run, not walk, to ACT's website (ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org) for your tickets. The word is out — this is some of the best community theater currently available in the region. Tank and Grizzard have created a compelling and evocative work of art that shouldn't be missed.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.