KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 6, 1998
It was a good week to get a glimpse at the backstory and inner life of two pretty high-profile people: a former First Lady and an outspoken AIDS activist. Oddly enough, they had something in common: both felt like outsiders in their families and in the culture in which they lived.
For all the acclaim she acquired while becoming a legend, Eleanor Roosevelt never felt at home in the White House, or with her cousins, the Roosevelts (she was, after all, Teddy’s niece). But her mother-in-law never accepted her, her husband was an overly social but secretive man, and she had to make a way for herself. That way set the standard for the independent political wife, but it was not without its heavy costs.
In the lengthy, chatty, one-woman play by Lawrence Waddy, “Eleanor” tells all — or almost all. There are details of Franklin’s infidelities, but mere intimations of Eleanor’s own extracurricular relations — both male and female. What’s most striking about the piece, though, is Rosina Reynolds’ tour de force performance. She totally inhabits the character, shapeless girth, saggy breasts, creaking voice and all. She makes us feel like guests in her study, and we squirm at her discomforts in relating some of the less-than-wonderful moments in her celebrated marriage.
This was an all-too-brief run of “Eleanor,” which had its world premiere at St. Paul’s Cathedral last fall. The woman may have died 36 years ago, but the world traveler, UN Delegate and tireless champion of human rights seemed very much alive for several evenings. I hope she’ll make another, longer, return visit soon. Coincidentally, the director of the piece, Lisa Steindler, shows up in that other outsider’s story, “The Destiny of Me,” a sequel to Larry Kramer’s award-winning, autobiographical “The Normal Heart.”
Kramer, both proud and guilty to consider himself the longest-living survivor of HIV, won the Obie Award in 1993 for this update from the front — a gut-wrenching account of his neurotic family background and his fight to hasten a cure for AIDS. The aggressive, abrasive activist Ned Weeks checks himself into a hospital for an experimental treatment program run by the doctor his militant organization has been tormenting and attacking for years. Terrified for his life, Ned relives seminal scenes from his past, trying to come to terms with his overprotective, Pollyanna mother, violently homophobic father and adored but ambivalent older brother, struggling with his younger self, and trying to make sense of his life. The play is long, and maybe a little didactic, but it’s also filled with humor and anguish and fear and love. Intense, dramatic, funny at times, but rueful, alternating, as the gay community does, between anger and hope and despair at this plague that will not go away, and will not be sufficiently funded to be stamped out.
The production is one of Diversionary’s strongest, and director Gayle Feldman’s best work. She has cast impeccably. Doug Crane as the older Ned and Patrick McBride as the younger, perfectly capture the early, antic naiveté, and the later desperation and cynicism of a middle-aged man, still feisty and funny but also sick and tired, yet unwilling to give up hope. His parents are skillfully and compellingly played by Lisa Steindler and David Gallagher, who, like Jeremy Shepard as the beloved brother Ben, manage to make their characters three dimensional and even understandable, despite some awful acts. The doctor and his wife are less easy to pull off, being written as stick figures, not flesh-and-blood humans. Chris Rynne’s set and lighting are eerie, scary and suggestive all at the same time. This outsider, Larry Kramer, knows just how to suck us inside his life, his plight, his panic, his dread, his jokes and his meshugenah family. He may not be an Everyman (or even an Everygay), but anyone who’s ever had to fight to establish an identity will be able to relate.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.