Joe DiPietro’s thought-provoking piece is set in the years 1915 to 1920, years mostly encompassing Woodrow Wilson’s second term as U.S. President, but it rekindles a period in the mid-20th century when biographical plays about historical figures had sweep and lots of characters to discuss a situation from several angles and who gave you much to listen to.
THE SECOND MRS. WILSON always centers on something fascinating. Its main focus is Edith Galt Wilson, the Southern widow with little interest in public affairs, who charms the President, also widowed, and becomes his second wife. As we see Edith’s growing influence and the reaction to it from President Wilson’s inner circle, we see both actual and family politics unfold. On the periphery are such heady subjects as whether the United States should enter World War I, women’s suffrage, the Treaty of Versailles that ends World War I, and the formation of a League of Nations. The last of these issues gets the most attention, but it doesn’t matter. The political questions of Wilson’s day are given excellent treatment by DiPietro. They are thoroughly explained in all of their ramifications. But they serve as a nicely included history lesson that gives insight to the role of Edith Wilson in her husband’s and America’s political life.
Woodrow Wilson has a debilitating stroke in 1919, and Edith, keeping the President isolated and personally determining who can and can’t see him, including the Vice President, members of Congress, and cabinet officials, also speaks for the President and defines his policy. She is arguably, though unelected, the first woman president of the United States, a line George Street Playhouse uses in its promotions for “Mrs. Wilson.”
Gordon Edelstein’s direction is terrific. Gathering important characters on Alexander Dodge’s brilliant set that sumptuously suggests various rooms in the White House at once, Edelstein ekes every bit of drama and clarity from DiPietro’s sound and entertaining text. The byplay among government leaders is reminiscent of the wonderful repartee and insight of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. You see the political and ethical dynamics of Washington circa 1916, and you’re struck by how little has changed. Except, perhaps, for the quality of thought the officials display and the dignity with which they carry themselves. Neither the men in this play nor Mrs. Wilson leave you with the disenfranchised “none of the above” feeling you get from the crop of Presidential candidates offered to us a century later, i.e. now!
As much is intelligently debated by characters portrayed with magnetism by a splendid cast, you always have the presence of Edith Wilson, and her desire to fulfill her husband’s greatest intentions, coloring the proceedings. Edith is a wonder. When we first see her, she is all charm and social skill. She barely knows where Serbia is let alone how the assassination of an Archduke in Sarajevo can trigger a massive European conflict. She hardly remembers the Presidents who preceded Woodrow Wilson into office and takes no interest in politics or current events. Mr. Wilson falls in love with Edith. The feeling mutual, but the relationship is problematic given that Mr. Wilson is the U.S. President. Like Edward VIII two decades later, he can marry whom he chooses but he has to consider what his choice means politically and how various factions will react to it. Love prevails, and Edith doesn’t delve into politics as much as she connects by osmosis to her husband’s position. To be the wife she wants to be, Edith has to understand Woodrow’s mind and share what troubles him. This invites more involvement into Woodrow’s political world and the making of friends and enemies, one of whom is regarded differently by Woodrow than he is by Edith, and entry into partisanship and Washington affairs.
DiPietro and Edelstein keep Edith’s progress fascinating. Of course, they have the magnificent assistance of Laila Robins, the actress who may qualify as the least known, most-unsung artist working in American theater today. Robins is never short of excellent, but she goes beyond great in bringing Edith Wilson to the stage. Her grace in early scenes is matched by her steely resolve and sense that she, as the guardian of the President, is equal to any Senator, cabinet officer, world leader, or Vice President. This attitude, expressed so brilliantly, at a time when women were newly granted the right to vote. Robins is subtle in her approach. Her style is so natural, and so unidentified with specific roles, you see her living Edith Wilson as opposed to acting her. Robins is surrounded by actors of compatible gifts, so whatever charm or fire she exudes, she finds a match, a foil, or an appreciative husband returning her honesty and cunning.
John Glover is both presidential and human as Mr. Wilson. He endows the 28th President with humor that runs counter in a refreshing way to the image we usually have of the man. Glover shows range as he plays an energetic and addled Wilson. He is particularly touching in scenes in which Mr. Wilson realizes and tries to fight his decline.
Great performances are turned in by Sherman Howard as Mr. Wilson’s prime adversary, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge; by Richmond Hoxie as Mr. Wilson’s ignored Vice President, Thomas Marshall, who believes he should be instated as the 29th President given the extent of damage of Mr. Wilson’s mentality; and by Stephen Baker Turner as the doctor and political liaison who is by Mr. Wilson’s side during his fight to institute the League of Nation and insure America’s membership in it. Michael McGrath provides good change of pace as Mr. Wilson’s scrappy, streetwise assistant, Joe Tumulty. Stephen Spinella conveys dignity, hurt, and regret as Mr. Wilson’s closest adviser, Edward House, one who loses favor as he tries to educate Edith Wilson in an unwanted art, compromise.
Edelstein’s production doesn’t grab you as much it keeps you constantly interested in the discussion at hand and involved in taking sides. DiPietro remains faithful to history, perhaps in ways that precluded him from giving extra drama or embellishment to some situations, and uses his prodigious skill as a writer to keep THE SECOND MRS. WILSON urgent and consequential even when scenes contained more exposition or clarifying debate than raw conflict or drama. Read the full review >>>
[9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ] November 10-29; 2015; georgestreetplayhouse.org.