Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 29, 2021

REVIEW: Barrington Stage, “Eleanor”

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through August 7, 2021
by Shera Cohen

It’s no wonder that Barrington Stage Company has named one of its theatres after recurrent
playwright Mark St. Germain. Each summer for at least the past decade, BSC and the writer have partnered in giving birth to a new play. Many of these stories are biographies; most are snippets of the lives of famous men and women in history books.

A sweeping panorama of the life of one of the most inspirational, intelligent, and influential women in America describes St. Germain’s premiere play “Eleanor [Roosevelt]”.

It is never a surprise when a theatre designers take an essentially bare set and mold it into numerous indoor and outdoor scenes, in a process invisible to the audience, but with significant impact just the same. Include one of the exceptional actors of our day and a tight well-versed script, and “Eleanor” has become St. Germain’s most exceptional biographic play to date. That’s not just me spouting accolades at BSC. I know of what I speak, as I have seen ten St. Germain bios.

Harriet Harris
photo by David Dashiell
Remember “Frasier,” a successful comedy of several years ago? Well, Dr. Frasier Crane hired Beebe, an agent whose flattering descriptions would be obnoxious, aggressive, egotistical, and loud. Actor Harriet Harris’ nasal shouting at lightning speed seemed to be her trademark. I hated Harriet. One benchmark of a good or superior actor is to forget all prior roles, only to see the character in front of the audience. Not to be factious, but it was only because Harris “looked” like Beebe, that I “recognized” her.

Harris portrays Mrs. Roosevelt as wise and cunning, ready to roll up her sleeves to do whatever it takes to support her belief in human rights, as well as rights for herself. Harris balances a woman with a large physical presence, with a naivete that seemingly belies her strength. Not that Harris creates a perfect First Lady, but rather a female mirroring her husband's ideals and intellect, which the U.S. of the 40's needed.

For 90 uninterrupted minutes, Harris recreated Eleanor’s life from teenager to widowhood. What a feat to memorize an entire one-woman play, while at the same time act in another play at another theatre in the evenings. Director Henry Stram has a keen eye for posturing and moving Harris along with the script. Bah humbug, I say to those audience members who demean single-character theatre. 

Ms. Harris received an instant Standing O, and my guess is that Mrs. Roosevelt did as well in her day.