Stunning Harriet Harris as Eleanor Roosevelt in The Berkshires


PITTSFIELD, Mass. – Whether Harriet Harris had supreme confidence in her acting skills, whether she desperately missed live theater or, quite possibly, a combination of the two, the Tony Award winner and her familiar presence on the stages of Berkshires have taken on two intimidating roles this summer in locations 12 miles apart: Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s unrivaled comedy “The Importance of Being Consistent” in Stockbridge and Eleanor Roosevelt in the new biographical drama of a female “Eleanor” at Barrington Stage Company.

Harris only had five days off between shows. In other words, at night she imperiously and hilariously delivered wild epigrams as part of a set; on the day, Harris memorized and rehearsed a 90-minute, entirely self-reliant scenario in which she brings not only the country’s oldest first lady to life, but also FDR, Winston Churchill and at least 10 others for a exceptional production which opened Wednesday evening. While great women and roughly the same age, Lady Bracknell and Eleanor Roosevelt are otherwise totally different. Harris’ brilliance as an actor and his bravery professionalism is evidenced by his accomplishment in playing both so well.

Performed by Harris, directed by Henry Stram and featuring visual pop by set designer Brian Prather and lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, “Eleanor” is the best kind of story, both uplifting and entertaining.

Captivating and thoughtful portrait of a fascinating and revolutionary woman who focuses primarily on Roosevelt’s youth and her 12 years in the White House, “Eleanor” last summer was offered by Barrington Stage as a Zoom reading with Harris. It is the latest of a dozen pieces the company has produced by Mark St. Germain, with whom it has a long artistic association. (His smaller scene was named after him a decade ago.)

A writer passionate about dramatizing the lives of historical figures, St. Germain used scenes from the BSC to explore a notorious disease propagator (“Typhoid Mary”, 2018), a wooded outing with the titans of early 20th century Ford and Edison (“Camping with Henry and Tom”, 2016) and a Hemingway-Fitzgerald clash (“Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah,” 2013).

By the richness of its emotions and the scope of its narration, “Eleanor” reminded me more of “Gertrude and Claudius”, the superb adaptation by St. Germain of the successful 2000 novel by John Updike of the same name, which BSC has. produced two summers ago. Unlike this play, essentially a prequel to “Hamlet” and therefore with fictional although familiar characters, “Eleanor” is based on an actual character who has been extensively studied and recounted. While much of Roosevelt’s life was new to me, my story mate for Wednesday’s opening said he innovates little in the facts and stories of his life.

More impressive are St. Germain’s interpretation of this life and the way he structures the play. At first, Roosevelt acknowledges the public as well as the incongruity of her, long dead and buried next to her husband on the grounds of the FDR National Historic Site in Hyde Park, now appearing in a cemetery in Washington, DC. Although the story sometimes shifts between periods of his life, the overall arc is chronological, moving from school to small domestic moments with family, behind-the-scenes planning for FDR’s return to politics in the 1920s. after his legs became paralyzed and political epic. battles of global significance.

As St. Germain said, Roosevelt was a daring liberal, urging her husband – often when he didn’t want to be spurred on – towards progress on racial equality, women’s rights, working and living conditions. for the poor and other social problems. His personal affairs were felt even more deeply. After an early infidelity from FDR, Roosevelt agreed to remain married, to pursue her political career, on condition that she was allowed to live a life largely independent of his. Instead of a dedicated White House hostess, she was the first lady as a crusader, rallying WWII troops by visiting 17 Pacific theater bases in two weeks, doing radio broadcasts and traveling the country with Lorena Hickok, an Associated Press reporter with whom she has formed a deep and perhaps intimate bond.

“Eleanor” devotes little attention to the 17 years Roosevelt lived after FDR’s death in 1945, and she misses the play, one of her rare flaws. Maybe there is quite a bit of extra room in these years. Rich in accomplishments and honors, her widowhood was around 50 percent longer than her time as First Lady. Freed from the constraints of the office but brimming with the wisdom and experience they imparted, Roosevelt continued to live boldly. If only there was a screenwriter to tell the story and an actor for the role. Oh wait, there is. The St. Germain-Harris collaboration deserves a reminder.

Theater critic
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Or: Boyd-Quinson Stage, Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Mass.
Operating time: 90 minutes, without intermission
keep on going: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; mornings, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; until August 7
Tickets: $ 25 to $ 69
Info:; 413-236-8888

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