PITTSFIELD — When playwright Mark St. Germain was approached by Florida Studio Theatre a little over a year ago to write a play for the Sarasota theater’s Suffragist Project, honoring the 100th anniversary of the passing of the19th amendment granting women the right to vote, he found inspiration in Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I think (she) is a true heroine,” the playwright said in an email, “someone who stood up for the rights of every man and woman in the world. She backed down to no one, including her husband, the President.”
“Eleanor” had a reading early in 2020 as part of the workshop at FST, where St. Germain is a member of the Playwrights’ Collective. In October 2020, Barrington Stage Company — where St. Germain is an associate artist — streamed a virtual reading of the play that had been filmed in BSC’s otherwise empty Boyd-Quinson Stage. Now, virtual is made real. The production — directed by Henry Stram and starring Harriet Harris — is being presented at the Boyd-Quinson Stage, where performances begin Friday. The already nearly sold-out run is scheduled through Aug. 7. Press opening is July 21.
“I adore Eleanor and this is a beautiful play,” Harris said during a joint interview with Stram at BSC’s Wolfson Center on North Street.
When the Tony Award-winning actress received a copy of the play from St. Germain in February 2020, there was no plan for a full production anywhere.
“I think theaters already had their seasons planned,” Harris said.
St. Germain also sent a copy of the script to BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd. “We had a Zoom meeting, Julie, Mark and I,” Harris said, “and I suggested we bring Henry in to direct.”
“We were going to do it as a staged reading in August last year,” Stram said. But plans changed with the lockdown of theaters due to the COVID pandemic. So, Stram said, the idea shifted to producing a virtual reading.
Harris and Stram have known each other since their student days at The Juilliard School in New York. “We’ve known each other since 1973,” Stram said.
“He was the first person I met as a student,” Harris added.
Stram estimates they’ve done 12 productions together over the intervening decades. He’s come to trust Harris’ instincts for making meaningful choices; “her accuracy; her emotional availability.”
“I know Henry,” Harris said. “As a director, he brings to the rehearsal room humor, intelligence, generosity, sensitivity, access to understanding of essence.”
Harris is no stranger to Eleanor Roosevelt. As a child, her mother often expressed her admiration for Eleanor. As an adult, she’s played Eleanor four times — first in Paul Rudnick’s “Rude Entertainment,” which opened on Broadway in October 2001 — one month after 9/11. She also played Eleanor in Netflix’ “Hollywood,” and, most recently in the PBS series “Atlantic Crossing.”
“Every time I play her,” Harris said, “there is a different element of her I’m asked to play.”
The Eleanor of “Eleanor” not only needs to keep up with her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but also be a step ahead.
“If he [FDR] knows something, I [Eleanor] have to know it, too,” Harris said. “I have to know things he doesn’t. (As Eleanor) I need to grow beyond what I am. I’m not enough. I need to be more. I have stuff inside me that needs to be put to use.”
“Eleanor” is a workout for audiences — a revelatory, intimate, personal play that looks close and hard at Eleanor and FDR, warts and all, in a relationship that virtually defines unorthodox. The play also is a workout for Harris, who portrays not only the internationally respected and admired First Lady, but also FDR, and the men and women who made up the tapestry of their lives.
Her interpretation of these figures is less imitative than it is descriptive; reflective. They are all seen through Eleanor’s reflections on her life, looked upon from “the other side,” after her death and burial next to FDR in Hyde Park, N.Y. She presents as an intensely human figure looking back on the seasons of her public and private life.
“These people are all seen from Eleanor’s point of view,” Harris said; “who they are; what they did. I think she thinks she’s doing an interpretation of who these people represent in her life.”
Harris sees Eleanor as a woman possessing enormous power, “which she used for everyone else, not herself,” Harris said. She had a voice that could be heard and, Harris said, she wouldn’t rest until it was.
“She had this energy, that spirit that says ‘this has to be done and if (it isn’t done now) it won’t happen for another 20 or 50 years. This needs to be done now.”
“Eleanor fought all her fears to assert herself,” St. Germain said in his email. “She was unafraid to speak the truth and had no filter. I hope the audience looks for, or becomes, Eleanors of today.”
Stram says that he and Harris have come quite a way since they began working on “Eleanor” a little over a year ago. There’s been a lot of thinking, planning, analysis, research.
“There’s a certain point when research doesn’t matter anymore,” Stram said. “You have to make the leap into the poetic.”
The leap has begun.