Terry Baum, lesbian feminist theatre activist, has long been fighting the good fight, ever since (and before) founding Lilith, a woman’s theatre collective, in San Francisco in 1974. Previously, she’d been a personal aid to the great Bella Abzug in her Congressional campaign in 1972. Baum is a powerful woman who understands powerful women.
I last saw her at the Exit Theatre nearly a decade ago when she and theatrical co-conspirator Carolyn Myers appeared, delightfully, as “The Crackpot Crones” back around Christmas of 2013.
She returns to the Exit with a more dramatic piece, playing Lorena Hickock, putative lesbian lover of Eleanor Roosevelt.
With the evidence of their extensive correspondence, only the most homophobic of historians could deny that they were in love and had an affair of the heart (at least) that stood the test of time. This is a true story.
In “Hick: A Love Story,” playwright and actress Baum (directed by Carolyn Myers) imagines a moment in time where journalist Lorena Hickock is examining her collection of love letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, not long after Roosevelt’s death. Hick faces a difficult choice: should she destroy the letters? or should she turn them over to the Roosevelt archives, where they would become part of the historical record? What would Eleanor want? Although she left no instructions, Hick understands that Eleanor knew of the letters and never asked Hick to return or destroy them. So the choice was meant to be left up to her. A proud lesbian woman, she is very much tempted to send the letters to the archive, but she is painfully aware of the humiliating attacks that might ensue. Will she or won’t she?
As she begins reading the letters and reminiscing, the depth of this passionate love affair comes to life against the backdrop of the Great Depression and Hick’s work as a reporter, documenting the effect of the economic disaster in communities all over the country. The two stories — love affair and the Great Depression — are beautifully interwoven.
Soon, the ZOOM screen is split, and Eleanor appears (in a graceful performance by Paula Barrish). The chemistry between the two women is electric.
The organization of the material is excellent, and the story is full of suspense and interest. But it is the emotional honesty of the two actresses that grips us and and proves to be deeply touching.
In time, the intensity of the relationship faded somewhat, although Eleanor and Hick remained close friends until Eleanor’s death.
But it was a passionate affair, without a doubt, and the fact of it is demonstrated by the existence of the letters. They are a proverbial smoking gun.
And that’s just the letters that remain. Hick tell us, “I’ve already burned quite a few letters. The worst ones.” And then with a sly grin, she adds: “They were the BEST ones.”
But still she hesitates. Speaking of FDR, she states, “How I loved that man — what he did for the country, for the world — and am I now going to reveal to the world that I had an affair with his wife?”
Playing moments like this, Terry Baum knows exactly how to commingle laughter and tears.
In the end, as she reaches the decision we knew was coming all along — to give the letters to the archives — her final speech beginning “I was loved by Eleanor Roosevelt” could move a stone to cry.
“I want people to know,” she concludes. Then looking directly at the audience through the ZOOM camera, proud and defiant, “I want you to know.”
With this wonderful performance, we do know, and that is very, very good.
“Hick: A Love Story: The Romance of Lorena Hickock & Eleanor Roosevelt” can be seen on line on Facebook or Youtube through March 31. There is no charge, but donations to The Exit are encouraged and appreciated.
Rating: ****1/2(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Hick: A Love Story: The Romance of Lorena Hickock & Eleanor Roosevelt” by Terry Baum and Pat Bond. A Lillith Theater Production, live streamed as part of EXIT Theatre Presents. Director: Carolyn Myers. Music: Scrumbly Koldewyn. Technical Adviser: Amanda Ortmayer. Technical Assistance: Matthew Small.
Lorena Hickock: Terry Baum. Eleanor Roosevelt: Paula Barish.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters are used with the permission of her estate.