Portrayal of Roosevelt takes audiences on worthwhile 'Secret Journey'

For The Baltimore Sun
"Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey," continues at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Road, through Sunday Oct. 9

Compass Rose Theater has opened its sixth season with a production that ranks near the top of its past presentations. Produced by Compass Rose founding artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne, the engrossing one-woman show, "Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey," is a drama of deep emotion with historical context.

The play is by Rhoda Lerman, a novelist who was persuaded by television star Jean Stapleton to adapt a play from her book. Lerman's play opened in 1998 with Stapleton as Eleanor Roosevelt, a role she performed for several years.

Now breathing new life into this work at Compass Rose is Sue Struve, who is perhaps delivering her finest performance to date.

Lerman invests profound insight that is mined and communicated on stage. A more far-reaching dimension of this work is educational — introducing the historical figure Eleanor Roosevelt to audiences of all ages.

The work deepens the knowledge of those who remember her among the 20th century's most influential women. Those who do not know Roosevelt's story will discover a woman whose commitment to peace and human dignity is a worthy legacy to perpetuate.

Lerman's play opens a year after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, when Eleanor answers a call in 1946 from President Harry S. Truman to join the first U.S. delegation to the fledgling United Nations.

She initially declines, saying that her public life is over, but Truman's invitation inspires her to reflect on her experiences as a volunteer during World War I and her later marital struggles after she discovered FDR's infidelity. Later, while her husband served as assistant secretary of the Navy, he took her to Paris in an effort to save their marriage, which resulted in Eleanor's realization of their mission's futility — and of her own burgeoning interest in human rights and peace.

Struve convincingly ladles out imagined cups of soup, or coffee, as Eleanor re-creates her volunteer work at a Red Cross canteen in Union Station hosting soldiers soon departing for overseas. Here we glimpse the vulnerable young romantic woman savoring affection directed by a respectful harmonica-playing sergeant who longs to touch her hand.

Her romanticizing of trench warfare evolves into an abhorrence of war in a powerful demonstration of Eleanor's growing enlightenment.

Struve speaks in Eleanor's distinctive voice, complete with inflection and occasional quiver. The versatile Struve also transforms herself into individuals recalled in conversations to produce — without discernible effort — credible representations of a wide array of divergent characters, from husband Franklin to lonely soldiers and grieving widows.

Among those recalled in these trips down memory lane, perhaps none is more life-altering than her driver and English war veteran Major Duckworth.

Together they tour a French battlefield as he recounts the horrors of war to her. This driver and mentor influenced Eleanor's transformation into a strong advocate of peace.

Another influential figure is FDR's mother, Sara, the domineering matriarch who controls the family purse.

Against the portrayal of Sara, Eleanor establishes independence by asserting her intention to invite activist friends for tea at her house on the Roosevelt estate whenever she wishes..

Struve delivers Eleanor's most profound ideas so insightfully that they instantly become clear. She also conveys the required drama in confronting her unfaithful husband in her heart-wrenching reading of Franklin's hidden love letters to her social secretary, Lucy Mercer.

Struve invests her portrayal with strength and growth, embarking on a journey that transforms her soul from lead to silver.

Struve's portrayal is enhanced by Rick Wade's sensitive directing, which illuminates subtleties and heightens dramatic impact.

Wade directs movement about the stage space to enhance natural ambience. A projection screen above is creatively utilized to illustrate historical events and suggest mood.

The congenial simplicity of the set is the work of designer Joe Powell Sr. who strategically places pieces including a rocking chair, stool and writing desk.

Frank Florentine's lighting helps define mood and indicates the flow as Struve gives voice to the various speakers.

Along with set design is the compatible simplicity of Beth Terranova's appropriate costumes that complete Struve's transformation into Eleanor.

Together, this artistic team produces an illuminating biographical drama.

"Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey," continues at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Road, through Sunday Oct. 9. For showtimes and tickets call the box office at 410-980-6668 or go to compassrosetheater.org.

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