Relatable HICK, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Lesbian Love Story, at Theatre Project

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Relatable HICK, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Lesbian Love Story, at Theatre Project

Terry Baum

Terry Baum

Posted February 26, 2016 on BroadwayWorld.com

From the advance publicity, I had been concerned that Hick, a one-woman show now appearing at Theatre Project, might have been little more than lesbian agitprop, an exercise in triumphalism over the revelation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt‘s passionate affair with newspaper correspondent Lorena Hickok. I was relieved to discover this was a substantial play that, yes, included some agitprop, but also dealt thoughtfully with a host of issues. There’s feminism: the story of a woman fighting her way through a male-dominated profession, rising from a little paper in Battle Creek to a national byline with the Associated Press. There’s journalistic ethics: what happens when a reporter gets too close to a subject, and the tricky line between reporting and public relations. Then there’s the problem encountered by an involuntary archivist: what to do with a trove of letters that reveal a historical personage’s private life? And most of all, there’s a strange love triangle: on the evidence of the play, Hickok was nearly as smitten with Franklin Roosevelt’s policies as she was with his wife, going so far as to serve in his administration.

So it’s a meaty play, a huge burden for one performer, impersonating Hickok, to carry. The obvious performer is the co-author Terry Baum, who performed in a play on the subject by the late Pat Bond, a scene from which, so the program notes seem to tell us, was incorporated into Baum’s fuller treatment of the subject. From the photos, Baum does not look much like her subject. (The only publicity photo for the show I was able to rustle up, shared above, unfortunately does not give a good idea, inasmuch as in it Baum seems to be impersonating Franklin Roosevelt as much as Hickok.) And unfortunately, while we have, by the thousands, Eleanor’s letters to Hickok, some quoted verbatim in the show, there is no boast of similar source material in Hickok’s voice. Less control by the historical record as to Hickok means greater opportunity to improvise, in classical “biopic” fashion, when it comes to Hickok’s story as well as her appearance, and I have a sense that there was some creativity going on there.

No matter. Baum and Bond have given us a fascinating love story (however accurate or not in the details), and to some degree a universal one. Obviously, the tale of a lesbian affair, any lesbian affair, in the 1930s, is going to be different from the tale of a lesbian affair today, and both will differ in important particulars from the tale of any affair not involving two women. In the 1930s, the notion that there was nothing degenerate in the attraction between two women would not have come easily even to the women involved. “I’m a monster, but I was born like this,” Hickok says in the play, and she believably means it. By coincidence, I had finished reading Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian love story The Price of Salt (source for the recent movie Carol) on the same day I saw the Baltimore opening of Hick. And there, about a decade and a half later than the events of the play, Highsmith’s lesbian lovers are still struggling to come to terms with the notion, held by the world and maybe by themselves, that what they are doing is, and I quote, “an abomination.” There’s a gulf between that world and ours. Hickok’s temptation to self-doubt, if not self-hatred, would obviously be less of an issue today.

Likewise, the dalliances of a first lady, like those of a president, would be much more widely publicized today. It used to be that journalists understood their job description as including protecting the public images of public figures. The press corps, including Hickock, for instance, covered up not merely FDR’s own love life, of which many of them probably knew, but also his crippled state of which they all certainly knew, throughout his presidency. If a similar affair happened today, we’d find out all about it on TMZ and the Drudge Report. The certainty of publicity would certainly alter the dynamics and the course of the relationship. Hickok, by contrast, is depicted at the end wrestling with whether to donate Eleanor’s highly revelatory letters to the FDR presidential library.

So it’s a tale of a particular time and place, not to mention a particular sexual orientation. But there remains a universality to it. And Baum is good at bringing that out. From her exultation at recognizing that she is loved back, to her lashing out in frustration at gawkers when she is trying to have what she calls a “honeymoon” with Eleanor in Yosemite, to her mourning and nostalgia as an old woman after Eleanor’s death, her Hickok is relatable, whoever you are. “The fundamental things apply,” the song tells us, “as time goes by.”

On a weekend when the noisier gay-themed play The Normal Heart is opening on another stage in town, the quieter pleasures of this love story should not be overlooked.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Leave a Reply