- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 13, 2001

I grew up in a staunchly Republican home, which in my case meant everybody hated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mention of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration and the welfare system caused my father and grandfather to mock-spit on the floor.
No family gathering was complete without a relative standing up and doing a take off of FDR's fireside chats. Inevitably, someone would perform a grotesque parody of Mrs. Roosevelt, buck teeth and all, and those assembled would agree that she was the ugliest woman alive.
My opinion of the first lady expanded and softened over the years. What I liked about her most is that she accomplished what she did without having movie-star looks. As she said about herself, she was "too tall, too tense and [had] twice as many teeth" as anyone she knew.
She was undaunted, and her spirit reminded me of a nun I once knew who responded to endless advice that she really must do something about her nose: "In my line of business, you don't have to be beautiful."
That is the underlying message of "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey" at Arena Stage. That she was no great siren is a given, but what charms and inspires you about this one-woman show is how Mrs. Roosevelt made a magnificent life, where looks were irrelevant.
Starring "All in the Family's" Jean Stapleton and written by Rhoda Lerman, the play is a series of reminiscences, as the former first lady begins to consider life after FDR..
Miss Stapleton enters wearing a no-nonsense dress and sweater vest, looking for Fala, who in turn is looking for his dead master. "He's dead and he's not coming back. So go outside and play," she says cheerfully, in one of the play's many offhandedly witty moments. Another one is when she proclaims, "A man is a milestone, not a destination."
Mrs. Roosevelt awaits her boyfriend Mr. Miller, "my state trooper," to arrive. To pass the time until he arrives, she returns to 1918, when she wasa young wife with five children and a politically ambitious husband. She reflects on life with FDR, which was no picnic, considering his infidelities and black moods, her battleship of a mother-in-law and the ferocious toll war takes on men and particularly women.
Given the tenor of the times, it was a ghostly experience to hear Mrs. Roosevelt's harrowing accounts of the grotesqueries of World War I, when she toured France with her husband and a voice-of-conscience bodyguard named Duckworth.
It is also a startling concept, after the events of Sept. 11, to have her speak of how war impassioned Washington, awakening it from its slumber in a "voluptuous summer" of adventure and uncertainty. She talks of Washington coming to life during World War I, and the sheer excitement and opportunity of wartime, which seems so foreign to us now.
There are political asides, but mostly "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey" focuses on the first lady's story, how she coped with what life threw at her and learned to think for herself and trust her perceptions and opinions.
Miss Stapleton adeptly captures the flutey and upper-crusty voice of Mrs. Roosevelt, and her delicately wily mannerisms. Miss Stapleton did seem to have difficulty remembering her lines, but she recovered nicely.

* * *
WHAT: "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey"
WHERE:
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
WHEN:
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and selected Fridays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays, through Nov. 18
TICKETS:
$20-$48
PHONE:
202/488-4377
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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