Veteran San Diego actor Kandis Chappell takes on daunting role in ‘Eleanor’
To embody the famous first lady in Mark St. Germain’s play, Chappell traveled to the Roosevelt home in New York’s Hyde Park
To portray Eleanor Roosevelt, the most influential first lady in American history, “is just daunting,” says Kandis Chappell, who stars in Mark St. Germain’s one-woman play “Eleanor” at North Coast Repertory Theatre this month. “To even think about filling those shoes is a challenge.”
That’s saying something for an actress whose 30-plus-year theater career includes roles on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, the Old Globe (lots of Shakespeare there) and at North Coast Rep (“The Lion in Winter” and “The Illusion,” among others).
To prepare to play Roosevelt, who served as first lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, Chappell read books about her and watched Ken Burns’ documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” the ‘70s miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin,” in which Jane Alexander portrayed Eleanor, and a couple of PBS “American Experience” programs.
It was a recent trip to see friends in New York and a visit to the Roosevelts’ original home at Hyde Park that most connected Chappell to the Roosevelts.
“We toured the house, we walked the grounds, we drove over to Eleanor’s cottage,” said Chappell. “That was her getaway when she was married. That’s where she lived after Franklin died.
“When walking around that estate and walking through the house I remember we went up a staircase. I put my hand on the banister and thought ‘Oh my God, they touched this banister.’”
What attracted Chappell to St. Germain’s play was its emphasis on Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal life and her relationships over the better known historical and political details.
“She was very frustrated in her marriage,” said Chappell. “When Franklin became ill, his campaign manager went to Eleanor and said ‘We have to keep his career alive.’ She was pushed into becoming political, and she was really good at it.”
Long before that, the young Eleanor Roosevelt navigated unhappy early years in which she lost her mother at age 8 and her father was an alcoholic. It was “a miserable childhood,” Chappell said. “But it gave her strength. In those days, young women progressed by their looks. She didn’t have that option. She found other things to rely on to make her attractive to people.”
There was also the question for Chappell of “how she ended up championing poor people and minorities with her privileged upbringing. That became so important to her. She’s just endlessly fascinating.”
In the one-woman show directed by North Coast Rep artistic director David Ellenstein in its West Coast premiere, Chappell will portray not only Eleanor Roosevelt but, at times, 15 other characters, both male and female. “Eleanor” is not only Chappell’s first play in six years but her very first one-person show.
“Having been through this dry spell I said to myself, what I miss most is the community, being with other people,” she said. “And here I am doing a one-woman show, which is pretty ironic.”
Chappell says she hopes to give audiences a sense of Eleanor Roosevelt without doing an impersonation.
“I’m not a mimic,” she said. “But because she’s so iconic and people know her, I have to give people enough of a flavor of her voice or accent so that they’ll stop worrying about whether I look like her.”
When: Previews, Wednesday, June 7, through June 9. Opens June 10 and runs through July 9. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. and Sundays
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Phone: (858) 481-1055
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