Subtitled “The Romance of Lorena Hickok & Eleanor Roosevelt,” this one-woman production hails from the Lilith, A Woman’s Theater from San Francisco. The theater’s founder and author of this play (as well as it sole actor) Terry Baum, with her collaborator Pat Bond, has brought the secret love of one of the most prominent women of the 20th century – First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – to life. Beloved by the public, Eleanor was a tireless partner, supporting and expanding the work of her husband, President Roosevelt. His New Deal helped to bring Americans out of the Great Depression and he became the only president to be elected for four terms because of his strong leadership during World War II. Privately, when Eleanor discovered her husband’s affair, it ended their intimacy as husband and wife.
This is clearly a labor of love, honoring an enduring and a brave relationship between two great women of their time.
Much has been made of FDR’s affair with his secretary, but a love affair between two women was considered unacceptable and even illegal in the 1930s. There was much speculation about the personal life of Eleanor. Through an amazing correspondence of 2,336 letters – written to her lover and confidante, Lorena “Hick” Hickok over 30 years – it is revealed that she was a passionate person with a deep, inner life.
Hick acts as narrator, often speaking to the audience. The play shuttles between 1968 – when Hick is contacted by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library about donating the letters – and the first two years of the relationship, 1932-34. She is conflicted because the letters could be very explicit about Eleanor’s affection for Hick. While they also kept in touch by phone – and for a time Hick lived at the White House in a room off Eleanor’s bedroom – it is the letters that are the focal point and source for the interactions imagined between the two women.
In a world dominated by men, Lorena Hickok was the most famous female journalist of her day, working for the Associated Press with her own byline. She reluctantly accepts the job of covering Mrs. Roosevelt during FDR’s first presidential campaign and finds herself falling in love with her – and it is reciprocated. She sacrifices her career as a journalist in order to protect Eleanor and the relationship. Hick eventually works for the White House, traveling the country and documenting the effects of the Depression on its population. Hick also encourages Eleanor to write her own column, “My Day,” which was published six days a week.
Directed by Carol Myers, the play moves between time and space successfully, though the pacing was a bit uneven. The set designed by Viola Ruben is simple but effective – a triad of simple flats and props. One flat illustrates the newspaper mastheads where Hick’s articles appeared (including The Baltimore Sun) and sits behind a desk with Hick’s typewriter. The central and far right flats are imprinted with enlarged copies of Eleanor’s letters. The right flat is Hick’s apartment while center stage is the backdrop for important moments in the first two years of their relationship – a meeting at the Russian Tea Room, holding hands for the first time at a train stop on the campaign trail and a “honeymoon” in Nova Scotia among them.
It is emphasized that every word Eleanor speaks in the play, voiced by a disembodied Paula Barish, are from the actual letters she wrote to Hick. We are only given snippets and one wishes that more of the letters were utilized. But the primary message is about love that transcends gender, social position and time. The first blush of love, insecurity, disagreements and pure elation are part of the human experience, no matter one’s orientation. Terry Baum conveys all those emotions, as well as a younger and older Hick, very effectively. This is clearly a labor of love, honoring an enduring and a brave relationship between two great women of their time.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Mature subject matter and language. May not be suitable for younger audiences.
Hick: A Love Story through March 6, 2016 at The Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-8558, or purchase online.