Review: North Coast Rep’s ‘Eleanor’ a thoughtful, insightful and well-cast look at the former first lady

Kandis Chappell in North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Eleanor."
Kandis Chappell plays Eleanor Roosevelt, seen here with a picture of Winston Churchill, in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Eleanor.”
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

Mark St. Germain’s new solo show starring Kandis Chappell tells a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt in just 85 minutes


If First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were to “come back,” as she does in Mark St. Germain’s new solo play, she’d encounter an America and a world that need her social justice advocacy and compassion for the underprivileged more than ever.

St. Germain’s “Eleanor,” which opened Saturday in its West Coast premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, seeks to illuminate how Roosevelt’s private life — before and during her marriage to fifth-cousin-once-removed Franklin Delano Roosevelt — informed and motivated her public life. In the capable hands of star Kandis Chappell and director David Ellenstein, this is accomplished in 85 efficient and revealing minutes.

Chappell, channeling Eleanor Roosevelt but not attempting to impersonate her, speaks from a peaceful bench in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery. That isn’t where she was buried. It was a place that she went to during her life for consolation. Behind her is Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture titled “Grief,” and it is a fitting backdrop for what Eleanor has to share: She is searching among the retrospective good deeds of her life for her soul, for the woman born Anna Eleanor whose relationships were lost or sacrificed for duty.

Told from girlhood through adulthood that she was unattractive, “I resolved I would be of use,” recounts Chappell’s Eleanor. Of great use she was to FDR, especially after polio left him disabled. As reporter and presidential adviser Louis Howe told her, “He’s got the head for the game and you’ve got the heart.”

Eleanor’s own heart was tested repeatedly. She was orphaned by age 10. Her father, Elliott, “the love of her life,” committed suicide.

Her marriage to Franklin was “a fairy tale, complete with a witch”: her mother-in-law, the domineering Sara Roosevelt. But it was not a fairy tale. It was a platonic relationship and FDR had his extracurricular relationships, the most notorious and long-lasting (up until his death) with Eleanor’s own secretary, Lucy Mercer.

Eleanor references her own dalliances, with a bodyguard and with journalist Lorena Hickock. But wistfulness becomes sadness in these recollections.

Throughout this theatrical history lesson, Chappell inhabits not only Eleanor but many of the other personages who were part of hers and Franklin’s lives, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who brazenly walked around in the buff while visiting the Roosevelts. Chappell’s manner is engaging, almost matter of fact. At times she addresses the audience directly and even makes a couple of pointed allusions at the deviations of the Donald Trump era.

Chappell brings to her portrayal the forbearance that Eleanor Roosevelt herself must have exercised over the years as she attempted to reconcile her dedication to serving those abused, marginalized or in need with a marriage that was a marriage in name only.

When, in remembering her husband’s death and learning that Lucy Mercer had been with him at the end, her emotions at last overtake Eleanor. Chappell, so thoughtful and restrained to this point, expresses the vulnerability that few ever associate with Eleanor Roosevelt and that history all too often denies her.

Coddon is a freelance writer.


When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. and Sundays. Through July 9

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Tickets: $54-$65

Phone: (858) 481-1055