Theater review:

'Hick' effectively reclaims history of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lorena Hickok

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
At its best, "Hick: A Love Story" brings the romance between First Lady and First Friend beautifully to life.

One thing that many minorities share is a suppressed or distorted history. It can be difficult to learn about the past when the powers that be tended to marginalize the accomplishments of those outside prevailing norms -- racial, gender, national, religious and, of course, sexual orientation.

Gays and lesbians have long been used to digging through standard texts looking for between-the-lines hints or researching more obscure material to locate kindred souls who ran up against clueless or hostile historians. One such soul: Eleanor Roosevelt, the most famous and consequential first lady of them all.

"Hick: A Love Story," running through Sunday at Baltimore Theatre Project, makes a valiant and valuable effort to fill in details about someone who loomed large in the 20th century, yet remained elusive when it came to her private life.

Playwright Terry Baum, building on stage piece from a few decades ago by Pat Bond, uses the 2,000-plus surviving letters from Roosevelt to Hickok as the foundation for a 90-minute, one-woman show that yanks a chapter of gay history out of the shadows. (Bond's original work was performed in Baltimore by Marj Conn in 2000.)

The production, from the Lilith Theater of San Francisco and directed by Carolyn Myers, features Baum as Hickok. Roosevelt is conjured up on the theater's sound system, her words, directly from the letters, spoken by Paula Barish. The action unfolds on a simple, neatly evocative set by Vola Ruben and gains from evocative use of period music (Audrey Howard is the sound designer).

There's a somewhat creaky beginning and end for "Hick," set in 1968, the year of Hickok's death. Her to-donate-or-not-to-donate dilemma involving the fate of her treasured trove of Roosevelt's correspondence could use tighter focus. 

But the meat of the play, dealing with the early 1930s and the most intense period of the relationship between FDR's wife and the "gal reporter" from the Associated Press assigned to cover her, has a lot of vivid quality.

Baum may have a tentative moment or two along the way, but she persuasively creates a distinctive and very likable character. The actress conveys the process of Hickok falling totally, giddily in love with particular skill, revealing a woman who can easily break into a little or dance as the memories consume her. Baum also makes the repeated gesture of clutching Roosevelt's letters to her chest ring true. 

The script includes charming and funny scenes — a visit to the Russian Tea Room in New York, a risque episode in the White House, a rant against outdoor camping — that are delivered in disarming fashion. There's a lovers' quarrel, too, which gives Baum an opportunity to reveal poignant nuance. 

"Hick" might gain from having an epilogue, perhaps just a brief projected text about Hickok's death, the many years her ashes were left unclaimed, her eventual burial in an unmarked grave. But the play is, quite sensibly, focused instead on the light and love that warmed two exceptional lives — a first lady and the woman dubbed "first friend."

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