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Dore Schary's new play succeeds both as drama and history. Dealing with Franklin Roosevelt's poliomyelitis attack, his recuperation, and his return to political prominence, Sunrise at Campobello not only relates the facts of this most striking of political careers, but also demonstrates real growth in several characters.
By putting history on the stage, Schary has discarded the tool of suspense; the audience knows that he will get polio, and it knows that he will recover sufficiently to return to politics. These are the only major events of the play. The danger that the drama might become too talky is scarcely felt, however, as the tensions among developing characters are revealed. Only in the first act is one conscious of the conversation, as Schary tries too hard to show the Roosevelts as "ordinary" types. With only the attack itself to focus on, the act drags occasionally.
But in the second and third acts, the characters are no longer types, of any description, and Schary intricately weaves the problems of F.D.R.'s drive to return despite his mother's insistence on an invalid squirearchy, of Eleanor Roosevelt's development as an individual, and of their daughter Anna's own growth as a person.
Ralph Bellamy portrays Roosevelt with exceptional skill, showing him as a bright, talented, but not terribly warm or sensitive young man first, and then rising through his illness. He avoids overdrawing the weaknesses of youth in the opening scenes, and gives a deeply moving portrayal of Roosevelt's affliction. Moreover, he not only resembles F.D.R. physically, he has also caught the essence of the Roosevelt voice that excited the country.
The one quarrel with Bellamy's performance might as fairly be lodged against the author or the director. Roosevelt appears too jaunty and gay when he is first stricken. Confidence and good humor did indeed mark his illness, but they are too extreme here and Bellamy does not convey the strain that F.D.R.'s grin must have been for him then.
Vincent J. Donehue's direction also falters in the first act when the performance leaves it uncertain who is the central character. Bellamy is offstage for most of the last two scenes, and the play may seem to be about Louis Howe, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sara Delano Roosevelt.
The actors contribute to this effect through very strong performances, as Mary Fickett as Eleanor, Henry Jones as Howe, and Ann Seymour as the stricken man's mother contend among themselves and for their own conceptions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What they need is more organization, and perhaps the act simply requires cutting.
This fault disappears in the second act, and there is a great moment in Roosevelt's library where everything seems to catch hold at once. The catalyst is his awkward and lonely daughter, Anna, whom he crossly reprimands for a minor fault. But then he and Eleanor begin to communicate, and Anna, affectingly played by Roni Dengel, comprehends her parents maturely for the first time.
From then on it is easy. The wily Howe and the sturdy cripple combine to fashion a comeback, and the younger man continues to grow until the climax of his nominating speech for Al Smith in 1924. Bellamy now shows a Roosevelt who retains the sharpness that had given him profound early successes, but has learned to temper it with patience.
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