“I can’t kiss you, so I kiss your picture good night and good morning,” wrote former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s. Upon reading that sweet little note, one might assume she was writing to her husband while he was away on presidential business — but that would be an incorrect assumption. She was, in fact, writing to a woman.
But not just any woman. Roosevelt was corresponding with acclaimed female journalist and fellow trailblazer Lorena Hickok (“Hick” as she was affectionately called), a woman with whom Eleanor Roosevelt would go on to have a 30-year relationship. The untold story of their love affair is the subject of the one-woman show “Hick: A Love Story,” now playing at the Berkeley City Club.
At the center of the production is Terry Baum — also a bit of a trailblazer, but more on that later — who stars as Hick and tells the story from the journalist’s point of view. Fully captivating, wrought with emotion and a self-deprecating sense of humor, Hick talks directly to the audience as she recounts her first meeting with Roosevelt, their burgeoning fascination with each other and the heart-wrenching feelings of sadness after their brief falling out. Baum’s is a solo performance rivaling that of a full cast: She is simply ageless as she jumps with joy and clutches her body in jubilation, giddily rejoicing that Roosevelt is “her gal.”
You’re probably wondering: “So, is the story true? Is it all factual?”
For the most part. A hefty portion of the dialogue in “Hick” comes directly from the letters Roosevelt sent to Hickok during their romance on the campaign trail and subsequent lifelong friendship. Excerpts are read aloud verbatim, and it’s hard — nay, practically impossible — to imagine that these letters are referring to anything but a romantic love.
“I would give a good deal to put my arms around you and to feel yours around me,” writes Roosevelt to Hick. “I love you deeply and tenderly.” And further: “Oh, dear one, it is all the little things — the tones in your voice, the feel of your hair, gestures … these are the things I think about and long for.” Hickok would eventually donate more than 2,300 letters from Roosevelt to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, and her decision to do so is the most intense moment in the show.
Dates and times used in the production also check out factually, though Baum did use her own imaginings in recreating Hick’s emotions and private thoughts. In Baum’s vision, Hick is lovesick to the point of being obsessed with Roosevelt, and while the accuracy of this is debatable, it does make for an enchanting and comical performance. Yet, those who have heard of Hickok might recall that she was one of the most influential (and first) female journalists of her day, and while the play thankfully avoids sidestepping this important detail, it does give this accomplishment a backseat in favor of her love for Roosevelt. (Then again, this is “Hick: A Love Story,” not “Hick: A Career Story,” so perhaps it’s only fitting.) Still, observers might come away thinking of Hickok as less of an accomplished woman and more of a besotted puppy.
This outcome is interesting but perhaps unintentional, especially considering that “Hick” is the product of many professionally accomplished women. Baum, who is the playwright behind “Hick,” along with Pat Bond, is the founder of Lilith, A Woman’s Theater and has been active in the San Francisco political scene, even making a mayoral run in the city in 2011. Meanwhile, Bond has opened doors for lesbians within the creative industry and was instrumental in bringing their stories to the screen and stage.
The Berkeley City Club provides a nice and intimate setting for the play, aided by an all female production crew. The set design by Vola Ruben and Karla Hargrave is sparse and honorably simple: a chair, a desk with a typewriter, a coat rack, a backdrop with illustrations of their letters — all small things that set the mood and do it perfectly, leaving the focus on Baum and her powerful, love-drenched words.
Final verdict: Go see “Hick: A Love Story.” You’ll learn a little, laugh a little and maybe even cry a little.
“Hick: A Love Story” is playing at the Berkeley City Club until Jan. 26.