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Eleanor Roosevelt: Across a Barrier of Fear

Jane VanBoskirk returns to Eugene to play the first lady in a benefit for Planned Parenthood one night only at the Wildish
Jane VanBoskirk as Eleanor Roosevelt
Jane VanBoskirk as Eleanor Roosevelt

“Eleanor Roosevelt is someone who has really infiltrated my life,” Jane VanBoskirk says. “It’s helping me deal with Trump, hearing what she went through and all the troubles she had.”

On Thursday, April 20, the Portland actor, who has made a career of one-woman shows about strong women, comes back to town for a single performance of Eleanor Roosevelt: Across a Barrier of Fear at Springfield’s Wildish Theater.

All proceeds from the one-woman production, which is sponsored by Eugene Weekly, go to Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon.

VanBoskirk, 69, jokes that her resume is a “suitcase of dead women,” having done shows on such figures as Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway, labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Catholic missionary Mother Cabrini, pioneering woman physician Bethenia Owens-Adair and Florence Reece, the miner’s wife who penned “Which Side Are You On?”

Eleanor Roosevelt was perhaps the strongest-minded of any of the women on VanBoskirk’s list. The wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she was an outspoken first lady who advocated for human rights and racial equality. After Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, she was named a delegate to the United Nations, where she had a key role in drafting the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

VanBoskirk has long been a fan of the Roosevelts. “When I was a child, my parents were Roosevelt freaks,” she says. “We listened to her on the radio. So I have the dialect down.”

The physical presence is more challenging. Eleanor Roosevelt was a bit stiff in real life. “I am a looser person than Eleanor was, physically,” the actor says. “You know, her mannerisms — she spoke with her hands, and then kept them clasped at times. And she had so much dignity and integrity!”

VanBoskirk has studied films of Roosevelt speaking to be able to portray her presence accurately on stage.

While researching Eleanor Roosevelt for the show, VanBoskirk also paid attention to contemporary strong women here in Oregon, from former Portland police chief Penny Harrington to former Gov. Barbara Roberts. 

One thing the play doesn’t touch on is Roosevelt’s sexuality. She and her husband were romantically estranged early in their marriage because of his affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary, but remained friends and political allies throughout their lives.

For her part, Eleanor had intense personal relationships with a number of women — including aviator Amelia Earhart and Lorena Hickok, a reporter who covered her for the Associated Press — but kept that part of her life out of the public eye.

“I don’t bring up the lesbian aspects at all,” VanBoskirk says. “You want to keep private things private.”

The play, which runs for just an hour, was written by Portland playwright Sharon Whitney. She is also the author of a 1986 biography of Eleanor Roosevelt for young adults as well as an ensemble play about the young Eleanor.

Though she’s spent her life as an actor, VanBoskirk is no stranger to politics. Before moving to Portland in the early 1990s, she lived in Eugene with her husband, Tim Sercombe, then city attorney for Eugene and, since 2007, a judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals. They remain active in civic affairs.

While living here, VanBoskirk was a co-founder of Oregon Repertory Theatre. She also has performed with Northwest Children’s Theatre, New Rose Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. 

VanBoskirk has performed Eleanor Roosevelt about a dozen times around the country in the past year after taking a five-year hiatus from acting.

So how, we asked, would the former first lady have dealt with someone like Donald Trump?

“She would be appalled, just appalled,” VanBoskirk says. “There was so much dignity for her in the office of the president.”

And what would Roosevelt suggest we do?

“Eleanor would say, ‘Get active in small places. Start in your own community. If you want to make a difference, you have to make a difference where you live.’” — Bob Keefer

Eleanor Roosevelt: Across a Barrier of Fear begins at 7:30 pm Thursday, April 20, at the Wildish Theater in Springfield. Tickets are $20 at WildishTheater.com, with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon.