Eleanor depicts the early life of favorite first lady

Nearly 40 years after her death, Eleanor Roosevelt remains the most beloved first lady in American history. It was not only her tenure in the White House during the Depression and World War II that made her popular, but her continuing role in world affairs after the death of her husband.

Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, a one-act, one-woman play that runs through Nov. 18 at the Arena Stage, does not explore her years as First Lady or her time afterwards. Instead, playwright Rhoda Lerman focuses on the period which seems to have shaped Roosevelt into the woman the American public came to embrace in the years following World War I, when she traveled to Europe and witnessed first-hand the carnage of war.

Jean Stapleton, best known for her role as Edith Bunker, Archie’s wife in TV’s “All in the Family,” gives an inspired performance as Roosevelt. She conveys the warmth, innocence and human understanding that made Eleanor Roosevelt such an appealing figure.

Stapleton addresses the audience from a well-decorated room of her new home in 1945 following the death of FDR. Fielding a call from her husband’s successor, Harry Truman, she declines to speak at the newly founded United Nations, claiming that her days in the public eye are over.

The phone call sparks her memory, and she proceeds into flashback mode, with the remainder of the play keeping to this form. She speaks mostly of her time in France in the early days of her marriage.

Rhoda Lerman based the play on her 1978 novel, Eleanor, and the specific anecdotes show that she knows Roosevelt inside out.

Although Stapleton is a commanding stage presence, the format of constant storytelling begins to wear thin.

The stories are so full of rich description and larger-than-life characters that one wishes to actually see the world-changing conversations and events. Overall Stapleton manages largely to bypass the play’s shortcomings. Her performance and the fascinating historical context of Eleanor: Her Secret Journey are more than enough to keep most theatergoers interested.

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