Portrait of a Lady

ELEANOR: THE PEOPLE'S FIRST LADY
By Lee Patton Chiles
Historyonics Theatre Company

"I trust you." Imagine a politician's wife saying that to a reporter today. But that's what Eleanor Roosevelt told Lorena Hickok, the Associated Press journalist assigned to cover her during FDR's first presidential campaign. Lorena had asked whether she could print all the remarks Eleanor had just made to her. Eleanor's response highlights a difference between American political life today and American political life 67 years ago.

Her response also, we eventually realize as we watch Eleanor: The People's First Lady, reveals a certain canniness on Eleanor's part. Rather than set up an adversarial relationship with the reporters covering her, Eleanor made them feel that they were all on the same side.

Eleanor, like her husband, still took plenty of fire from the press. Some of it came from those who disagreed with her husband's policies. Much of it came because she was an unconventional first lady, carving out her own very active role in the public life of the nation. You can see why Hillary Rodham Clinton feels a special bond with her.

They're also bonded by their husbands' unfaithfulness. At least Eleanor didn't have to endure a public airing of her marriage's dirty linen -- another difference between public life then and now. And one of the best things about Victoria Churchill's performance as Eleanor in the current Historyonics production is the way Churchill manages to show us both the confident public face of the woman and the suffering that she kept very private. The usual Historyonics production style -- script in hand, all material taken from the historical record -- makes Churchill's achievement all the more amazing. Eleanor left few words about her private sorrows, handing Churchill little verbally to work with. (Nor does music director Tom Clear, he of the usually unerring taste, help by having the banal World War I weeper "My Buddy" sung while Eleanor mourns the death in infancy of one of her children.) Yet Churchill does more with the character physically than you commonly see in readers' theater, speaking volumes in a glance, a tilt of the head or the set of the shoulders.

Eleanor's son James narrates most of Eleanor's sorrows in this production, and he also sets the framework for her triumphs. Lee Patton Chiles, who both composed the script and directed the production, shrewdly uses James' memoir of his family to establish the narrative line of the evening. She then chooses with great subtlety and care from Eleanor's own writings and from other contemporary accounts to bring to life the woman and her times. John Flack makes James a warmly sympathetic narrator. Both he and Churchill successfully use that upper-caste-New York way of speaking so closely identified -- to the point of parody -- with the Roosevelts.

Monica Parks, Christy Simmons and Rosemary Watts play, variously, women journalists, a wittily observant White House maid (Parks) and adoring fans of Eleanor's. They also perform with gusto the tunes with which America fought the Depression blues. Joe Dreyer, who accompanies them on piano, relishes his few lines as several of Eleanor's harsher critics.

Elizabeth Krausnick designed the effective period costumes. Andrea Shrewsbury's simple, efficient set makes visual reference to the unseen president with a wheelchair set upstage under an American flag.

Though performed by actors, Eleanor, like many Historyonics productions, narrates more than it dramatizes. But Chiles' script and Churchill's performance make it a deeply revealing narrative.

-- Bob Wilcox

THE PARSONS DANCE COMPANY
Dance St. Louis

When the curtain went up at the Fox last weekend at the David Parsons Dance Company performance, the lights did not, and there we sat in the dark, listening to a solo saxophone. Very uncomfortable, I thought, and I was about to start resenting it when a dozen or more flashlights upstage clicked on and began to move. The piece, Parsons' own "Fill the Woods with Light," was a riff on an old-fashioned "black show," where performers in soft, light-absorbing garments (black velvet is ideal) stay behind their light source and manipulate light-colored persons or things, which appear to move independently. The Parsons people weren't in black velvet bodysuits, but they did put handheld spotlights on one another so one performer could drag another across the stage and have it appear she was dragged by unseen spirits or something. Or those with the lights would get under a dancer up in a lift, who would appear to be floating. Phil Woods' swing score, played by the Phil Woods Little Big Band, was so danceable, whether solo piano or the whole ensemble, oil drums could pirouette to it, or otherwise shake their steely bodies.

David Parsons makes theatrical dance -- playing with the lights (Howell Binkley, the company's lighting designer, is often Parsons' co-choreographer), fabrics (the evening's final piece, "Anthem," had banners huge and small, streamers) and a cyclorama blazing with vivid colors. Parsons has performed his best-known piece, "Caught," at least twice before in St. Louis. Last Friday, however, Jaime Martinez, the company's associate artistic director, took his place under the bright, closely focused ceiling spots to shimmer from light pool to light pool. Then, when the strobes came on, he seemed sometimes to float around the Fox performing space, sometimes to teleport himself, apparently, from downstage left to upstage right at the speed of thought. Another Parsons favorite, "Sleep Study," with the dancers in their jammies, moving in and out of some amusing puppy piles, was also fun.

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