Reviewed by Judy Richter
Helping San Jose Repertory Theatre launch its 30th anniversary season, Ed Asner performed his one-man show, "FDR," just six times in mid-July, but it deserves to have run longer than that.
Based on Dore Schary's Broadway hit, "Sunrise at Campobello," this 95-minute, one-act drama features Asner as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the nation during two of its greatest crises -- the Great Depression and World War II. It opens with a recorded speech by Roosevelt in 1933. Then Asner comes onstage in a wheelchair and launches into his story.
He talks about his 1921 bout with polio that left him virtually paralyzed for a time, but gradually he recovered enough that he could get up from his wheelchair and walk short distances, mainly with the aid of two canes. The script switches between Roosevelt talking directly to the audience and then with various people throughout his political career, including his stint as governor of New York and then election to the first of his four presidential terms in 1932. The story doesn't go into great detail about all the programs he launched to lift the country from the Depression. It does allude to his frustration with the Supreme Court and thoughts of expanding it to 15 justices.
His love for his five children comes through, as does his love and respect for his wife, Eleanor, whom he calls Babs. In one scene, he even alludes to his affair with Lucy Mercer and says that Eleanor knew about it and eventually accepted it. Other associates who figure prominently in the play are Louis Howe, a longtime political adviser; and "Missy" LeHand, his secretary.
Much is made of Roosevelt's concern about the stirrings of World War II in Europe and his frustration with U.S. isolationists. Still, he managed to send arms to help England defend itself against Hitler. Finally, there's the fateful bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941. This scene is filled with phone call after phone call as the president hears the news and subsequent developments and deals with the crisis. As the war neared its end in 1945, shortly into Roosevelt's fourth term, he talks about how tired he is and how much he's looking forward to getting a good rest at Warm Springs, Ga. He says this as he walks offstage, leaving the audience to fill in the knowledge that Roosevelt died at Warm Springs on April 12, 1945.
The program doesn't credit a director or designers although Ron Nash is listed as production supervisor and production stage manager. The set is simple, dominated by a desk and two U.S. flags. Asner is superb as Roosevelt, not obviously trying to imitate him, yet becoming quite believable. Thus the pleasure is in seeing this accomplished actor live (most know him best as Lou Grant in TV's "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") and in receiving an enlightening history lesson about one of the nation's greatest presidents.