Kandis Chappell as Eleanor Roosevelt. Photo: Aaron Rumley.

Eleanor

North Coast Repertory Theatre, San Diego

Written by:
Lynne Friedmann
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Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, author, speaker, humanitarian and longest-serving First Lady of the United States, is buried next to her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the family’s estate in Hyde Park, New York, yet her spirit is troubled. She finds solace only when seated on her favorite park bench in Washington, DC in “Eleanor” making its West Coast Premiere at North Coast Rep.

In a brilliant solo performance, actress Kandis Chappell recounts Eleanor’s painful childhood resulting from the early loss of her parents as well as shyness and insecurity about her abilities and her appearance. Under the influence of a boarding-school educator who made it her mission to develop independent-minded young women, Eleanor steadily gains the confidence needed for a lifetime of service that will ultimately change the world. Along the way, she will also face profound disappointments and staggering betrayals from those she loves.

Under the assured guidance of director David Ellenstein, this riveting biographical drama is not to be missed.

For a one-woman show, there’s a lot of company on stage as Chappell moves Eleanor’s timeline along by giving voice to larger-than-life photos of her as a girl, as a debutante and with her doting father. There’s also FDR’s domineering mother who finds Eleanor lacking in every regard, other family members (including Uncle Teddy Roosevelt), Winston Churchill, FDR’s mistresses and Eleanor’s dalliances (both male and female).

An intriguing character is a crusty former news reporter named Louis Howe, who becomes FDR’s political strategist and a trusted family friend. Recognizing that FDR is the “head” and Eleanor is the “heart” of a formidable team, he convinced her to stay in the marriage when it is hopelessly floundering. In addition to advising the neophyte candidate Franklin, Howe encourages Eleanor to find her place in the public eye and turns her into a dynamic speaker. When polio strikes, Howe and Eleanor team up to keep FDR’s political ambitions alive until he recovers sufficiently to get back out on the campaign trail and to ultimately win The White House.

Eleanor is presented to us in a soft day dress accented with a triple strand of pearls (costume design by Elisa Benzoni). Giving the outfit panache is a sash tied at the waist with long ends finished in rows of tiny glass beads giving the fabric just enough weight to hang straight yet sway gently with Eleanor’s movements. Shoes are sturdy leather and sensible. Wig design by Peter Herman.

The gallery of photos that underpin the storytelling is the inspired work of projection designer Aaron Rumley who uses to splendid effect the broad spaces between towering trees in the woodland set designed by Marty Burnett. Rumley does double duty with sound design that elevates the park setting with bird chirps and gives pathos to FDR and Eleanor’s numerous periods of separation over the years with occasional steamship signal blasts. Lighting design by Matt Novotny.

A scattering of trash on the park grounds (prop design by Anissa Ruiz) is quite telling of the present world in which Eleanor’s spirit inhabits. As she tidies up the lawn, she comments on the questionable nutritional value of the contents of a snack packet and a Gatorade bottle. An arched eyebrow speaks volumes as she picks up and drops into a trash bin a MAGA campaign button.

by Lynne Friedmann

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