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The producers of Eleanor: Her Secret Journey and To Kill a Mockingbird mean to remind audiences of a more innocent time, and I suppose there’s at least one sense in which you could say they succeed.
The shows take you backthey took me back, anywayto the ’60s, to the well-meaning, theatrically primitive entertainments that were then popular in educational venues and at the New York World’s Fair. I remember being captivated at the fair by an animatronic Lincoln, for instance. It was capable of standing, gesturing, and making limited facial expressions, and its rendering of the Gettysburg Address was definitely the highlight of the exhibition of which it was a part.
Memory is a tricky thing, of course, but I’ll go out on a limb after 35 years and say that Jean Stapleton’s current impersonation of Eleanor Roosevelt at Arena Stage is superior in every respectwell, almost; she fluffs more lines than the robot dideven if she hasn’t got nearly as good a script.
Rhoda Lerman has constructed Eleanor: Her Secret Journey as a rambling reminiscence by the Depression-era first lady, circa 1945, about six months after the death of her husband. A call from President Harry Truman asking her to be the first U.S. ambassador to the United Nations gets her started.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Truman, I was there in 1919,” she burbles into the phone. “We thought we’d fought the war to end all warsbut of course you know that.” And then she’s off, remembering how she served soup to soldiers at the USO, how some of those strangers were more attentive than her disloyal husband, whom she complains of having had to share with “my social secretarymy excessively social secretary.” Details of her unhappy home life occupy her for most of the evening, broken up with anecdotes about her domineering mother-in-lawand about that sweet Bernard Baruch who is so appreciative of her thoughts about human rights when he can’t get her husband’s ear. There’s also rather more talk about “loins quivering” than is really advisable for an evening of this type, but perhaps Lerman thought she needed to spice things up a bit.
Stapleton is a decent actressshe was a fine nurse in the Shakespeare Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet a few seasons backbut she’s hampered here by dialogue that, when it isn’t straining for poetry, is just plain strained (“horse nostrils bursting, horse rectums exploding”). The demands of a 90-minute, one-woman show also tax her voice, which isn’t nearly as limited as her stint on All in the Family would suggest but is still not a terribly flexible instrument.
Designer Michael Gilliam’s projected windows and washes of red, white, and blue light offer visual distractionwhich is a good thing, because John Tillinger’s staging makes such perfunctory use of an onstage desk, upholstered bench, and round telephone table that he might as well have placed his star behind a lectern for the duration. I feel duty-bound to report that my reservations seemed not to be widely shared by the opening-night crowd, which gave Stapleton a standing ovation.
I didn’t note any standees at Ford’s Theatre’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but then, I hit the street at a gallop after an evening that, with a 22-member cast and cheesy painted backdrops, seemed actively to be courting memories of high school production values. I may well have seen less inspiring professional productions, but if I have, they’ve mercifully faded from memory.
Based on Harper Lee’s novel about Atticus Finch (Robert Emmet Lunney), a white Southern lawyer who teaches his children about standing up for principle by defending a black man against trumped-up charges of rape, Mockingbird ought still to pack considerable melodramatic punch. And in spots, it’s possible to discern at Ford’s how Christopher Sergel’s adaptation is supposed to work. But as staged by Timothy Childs (who managed to turn the better-written Inherit the Wind into static, uninvolving mush last season) and performed by kids who can’t act and adults who mostly don’t bother, it’s reduced to a numbingly obvious pageant about race. The show lumbers heavily from scene to iconic scene, all familiar from the movie and staged with a breathtaking lack of imagination. Atticus shoots a rabid dog, little Scout takes the starch out of a lynch mob, the defendant holds up a withered hand in the courtroom, and, of course, the reclusive Boo Radley makes a surprise appearance when he’s most needed.
All of this is leavened by occasional spiritualssung by the cast’s African-American members, natchbut trust me, this Mockingbird don’t sing.CP