How do you breathe life into little-known, century-old history for today’s audience? By focusing on remarkable characters and creating the conflict so necessary to drama since its inception in ancient Greece. Playwright Joe DiPietro, long known for his comedies and lighter fare, has learned this lesson very well, as evident in the riveting production of The Second Mrs. Wilson that premiered Saturday night at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
Before there was Nancy, before there was Hillary, before there was Michelle, there was Edith, as in Edith Galt, the 40-something widow with whom President Woodrow Wilson fell in love shortly after the death of his first wife and wed (against the advice of his Cabinet) soon after his election to a second term. More qualified to be a hostess (having received no formal education) than Presidential adviser, Edith Wilson was often accused by her enemies (the men in Congress and the President’s Cabinet) of acting as the de facto President when her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919—just as a peace treaty was being drafted with Germany after World War I, a pact that included the formation of a League of Nations—until his death in 1921.
Playwright DiPietro covers the couple’s two-and-a-half year courtship against a backdrop of affairs of state, the most notable being Wilson’s strong desire to keep America out of the war, and his cabinet and Congress’s disapproval of his behavior and his fiancée. These scenes are especially charming, with a lanky, angular, dead-ringer-for-Wilson John Glover as an appropriately giddy pursuer and a luminous Laila Robins as the coy Edith, adept at keeping him at arm’s length while flirting outrageously with the poor man!
But all this light-heartedness is underscored by Edith’s contentious relationship with Col. Edward House, Wilson’s long-time friend and ally, played with a mixture of unctuous flattery and righteous outrage by Stephen Spinella. Here, Robins gets to preview the sharp elbows she uses to keep her ailing husband sequestered as she decides not only who will see him but what correspondence he will receive—after she has read and summarized to present to him! She even keeps Wilson’s great Congressional adversary Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (played with appropriate arrogance and pomposity by Sherman Howard) away so his opposition to the treaty won’t upset the President.
Joe Tumulty, the President’s personal secretary, and Dr. Cary Grayson are inveigled to join her in the scheme to keep the world unaware of Wilson’s true debilitation. As the former, Michael McGrath shows a warm, genuine concern for Wilson’s welfare that contrasts with Edith’s brittle and rather officious maneuvering to get her way; one gets the idea that she doesn’t want to relinquish the title of First Lady. It is interesting to note (as Artistic Director David Saint pointed out on opening night) that Tumulty is a member of the Tumulty clan of New Brunswick, proprietors of the venerable Tumulty’s Pub around the corner on George Street! As Dr. Grayson, Stephen Barker Turner is putty in Edith’s hands, given his concern for his patient. It may be a thankless role, but Turner conveys the man’s ambivalence very well. And in a small but pivotal role, Richmond Hoxie is perfect as tart, sardonic Vice President Thomas Marshall who, despite being next in line should Wilson die, is not especially close to the man, which is an understatement!
Director Gordon Edelstein adroitly takes his cast through the play’s six-year dramatic arc first against the backdrop of the White House billiard room and later in the President’s sickroom. Designed by Alexander Dodge and lit by Ben Stanton, the billiard room is clearly a male domain, with wood paneled walls, brass chandeliers, fine moldings and trim, and deep leather chairs. Edith’s femininity, telegraphed by the simple, flowing aquamarine silk dress designed by Linda Cho and accessorized by a variety of wrappers (with an occasional hat), subtly breaks the room’s masculinity, inhabited as it is by self-important men in well-tailored suits. The opulent set fills the playhouse’s expansive stage; various venues are signaled by a desk sitting stage front or movement to armchairs placed stage left.
To ever remind us that this is a man’s world, Edelstein has characters who are not speaking or involved in the action to remain at the rear of the stage in semi-darkness. Their constant looming presence looms acts as a reminder of those arrayed against Edith and her quest to keep Wilson in office to the end of his term.
Woodrow Wilson believed he had been put on earth by God so he could fix the world and bring about a “New World Order,” an view that sounds a more than a bit pretentious to modern ears. And Edith Wilson spent her life exceeding the expectations of men—we might consider her an early feminist. Joe DiPietro has created a nuanced portrait of a complicated woman who becomes the stage manager of an important man’s life, from her early criticisms of his tie and tailor to keeping Lodge’s amendments to the Treaty of Versailles from her husband lest he react fatally to the possible derailment of his precious League of Nations. Laila Robins beautifully conveys Edith’s complexity, taking our sympathies for the character on a rollercoaster ride, from affection for her charm to disbelief at the chutzpah she unflinchingly displays during her husband’s illness. That she was going against the Constitution bothers her little. Just think how a House Congressional committee would react to such antics today. Hillary’s 11-hour Benghazi grilling would be laughable.
The Second Mrs. Wilson will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through November 29. You will learn a great deal about this little-known era, perhaps reassess previous modern First Ladies and be entertained by fine acting and direction—all at the same time. The play is appropriate for older teens who are currently studying American History of the 20th century.
For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit theater website.