PITTSFIELD — One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons is from 1933, a time when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was trying to pull the country out of the Great Depression and Eleanor Roosevelt had begun to reinvent the role of first lady.
Drawn by Robert Day, the cartoon shows a pair of coal miners, shovels in hand and wearing head lamps, peering down a coal-strewn tunnel. One of them exclaims: “For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!”
There was no stopping that indefatigable champion of the underdog. She barreled past “should” and “shouldn’t” and went straight to “will.” In all of American history, has there ever been anyone quite like Eleanor Roosevelt? Her singular life surely contains the raw material for a great play.
“Eleanor,” alas, is not it. But Mark St. Germain’s new drama, now at Barrington Stage Company under the direction of Henry Stram, accomplishes what is perhaps the next best thing: It provides a scaffolding for Harriet Harris to do what she does supremely well.
In a bravura solo performance, Harris generates a force field that largely transcends the overly formulaic aspects of St. Germain’s script, while also completing the second half of a remarkable back-to-back feat for the actress in the Berkshires this summer.
Best known as Frasier Crane’s hilariously unscrupulous agent Bebe on “Frasier” — it’s a small tragedy of TV history that Bebe never got a spinoff series — Harris is a consummate stage performer who won a Tony Award in 2002 for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Right up till July 10, she was in neighboring Stockbridge, portraying Lady Bracknell in Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Then, less than a week after “Earnest” closed, she popped over to Pittsfield and began performances of “Eleanor.”
This doubleheader can’t have been easy, but precious little strain is evident. Harris burrows into what made Roosevelt distinctive, from the first lady’s vocal style (which Harris wisely does not overdo) to the power of her personality, then goes deeper to explore the strength of Eleanor’s moral compass and the countervailing impact of the insecurities — about her looks, for instance — that she had to battle.
Those insecurities surface very early on in “Eleanor.” Indeed, were it not for Harris’s skill, the play would peak too soon, because St. Germain brings matters to a boiling point with a melodramatic scene of Eleanor discovering letters in 1918 that prove Franklin has been unfaithful with Lucy Mercer.
Barrington Stage has often bet on St. Germain, forging an uncommonly close artistic partnership with him over the years (and even naming its second stage after him). Those bets have often paid off with world premieres of such fine works as “Freud’s Last Session” and “The Best of Enemies.”
It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that St. Germain has written a paint-by-numbers script with “Eleanor” — the play is better than that — but it never quite escapes the sense that biographical boxes are being dutifully checked and expository bridges are being painstakingly assembled.
Structurally, “Eleanor” employs a device reminiscent of the third act of “Our Town”: Eleanor speaks to us from beyond — actually from — the grave. The play opens in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery — not Eleanor’s final resting place, as she is quick to point out (she’s buried in Hyde Park, next to Franklin), but a spot where she came to sit and think when she was alive.
That sets the stage for Eleanor to recall, and Harris to reenact, episodes from the first lady’s past. Harris delivers quick, skillful sketches of the likes of Winston Churchill; Sara Roosevelt, Franklin’s imperious and domineering mother; Alice Roosevelt, Eleanor’s clever but mean-spirited cousin and daughter of Theodore; and, especially, gruff newsman-turned-political-adviser Louis Howe. (The only one of Harris’s mini-portraits that doesn’t land is Franklin, who comes off sounding like Thurston Howell III.)
It is Howe who tells Eleanor, speaking of FDR early in his career: “He’s got the head for this game and you’ve got the heart. He needs you.” That he did, and he knew it. Indeed, even as their marriage increasingly ran on separate tracks, their political partnership thrived. “I said everything Franklin could never say,” Harris’s Eleanor remarks.
The play skips across the events of their life together and apart, from initial courtship to the terrifying day when Franklin’s polio manifested itself to Eleanor’s recollections of her father (“He was the true love of my life”) to her admitted shortcomings as a mother to her loving relationship with Lorena Hickok, whom Eleanor called “Hick.”
As Eleanor emerges as a proponent of civil rights, she urges her husband to support anti-lynching legislation (to no avail) and resigns from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the organization refuses to allow Black singer Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall. During World War II, Eleanor urges FDR to grant sanctuary in the United States to 100,000 Jewish-German children, argues with him over the treatment of Black sailors in the US Navy, and furiously denounces the internment of Japanese Americans.
Unfortunately, the play gives short shrift to the nearly two eventful decades Eleanor lived after Franklin died. A broader problem that goes beyond “Eleanor” per se is that solo bioplays about famous figures constitute such well-traveled territory by now.
It’s been more than a half-century since Hal Holbrook began performing “Mark Twain Tonight!” on Broadway, and 45 years since Julie Harris brought Emily Dickinson to life in “The Belle of Amherst.” There have been many entries in the genre since then, and for new efforts to feel fresh, the usual conventions need to be revamped.
Or you can cast Harriet Harris as your star. Eleanor Roosevelt was pretty special, and so is she.
Play by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Henry Stram. Presented by Barrington Stage Company. At Boyd-Quinson Stage, Pittsfield, through Aug. 7. Tickets $35-$100. 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org