As the 2016 Presidential race heats up, talk of possibly having the first woman to hold the office is emerging. Proponents of the idea say “it’s about time we had a woman running things.” But looking back in history, there was a woman who many say was acting as the President of the United States years ago. In a play currently running at the George Street Playhouse, Mrs. Edith Wilson receives the credit for assuming the role of President when her husband, then President Woodrow Wilson, was stricken with a severe stroke. This play will only run through Sunday, Nov. 29.
A splendid wide stage allows a number of scenes to take place without pausing the action of the story being told. With a story written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Gordon Edelstein, the action moves seamlessly and at a quick pace which compliments the reality of all that took place. We meet Mrs. Edith Galt after she has lost a child and been widowed. Edith is an intelligent woman of her day who catches the eye of then President Woodrow Wilson who is in mourning after the death of his wife. They meet in the spring and by December they have wed. Not only is Wilson attracted to Edith for her physical assets, he also finds her enjoyable company who has opinions on current events of the day and is not afraid to express them.
As the romance is blossoming, political opponent Henry Cabot Lodge is continuing to build himself into a powerhouse in the U.S. Senate where he opposes President Wilson’s idealism especially his Fourteen Points and the concept of building the League of Nations. This battle weighs heavily on Wilson who is not a well man to begin with. Towards the end of the first act, Wilson suffers a stroke. When the action begins in Act II, Edith has established herself as the President’s advocate. She is determined to keep him in office even though he cannot function in everyday life. Only she and the doctor know how badly incapacitated he is and they are determined to keep it quiet. The remainder of the play shows the rest of Wilson’s time in office especially the fight for and eventual disappointment that accompanied the defeat of the ratification by the U.S. for entry into the League of Nations.
Mr. DiPietro has written a strong script for this play. It is one that shows that the politics of getting something passed in Washington D.C. involves a lot of compromising and negotiating. The use of dialog spoken like narration to the audience is especially effective in helping to set the scene and explain why something has taken place or how it affects the next set of actions. The characters are well developed and their actions in many cases make powerful inserts into the play which keeps the flow going. A prime example of this occurs in the second act when a bedridden Woodrow Wilson is wheeled onstage. The acting of John Glover depicting Wilson as an invalid brings the story to an entirely new level. Glover not only looks a lot like Wilson did, but he also captures the dropped side of the mouth and difficulty forming words that severe stroke patients suffer. Watching this take place provides a strong dichotomy between the energetic and idealistic man who starts the play to the one that still clings to his ideals but has no strength to be able to make them happen. So the actions of Mrs. Wilson make complete sense. Laila Robins’ portrayal of Mrs. Wilson has great depth in that she nurtures the husband who has fallen ill as well as crusades for him to try to carry out his mission.
The subject is interesting, the staging and setting well done, the script is powerful and the actors bring life to their characters in many different ways as described above with Glover and Robins. Sherman Howard plays Senator Henry Cabot Lodge whose ambitious quest for power runs rough shot over the President and his team. Vice President Thomas Marshall is played by Richmond Hoxie. He does a good job showing how incidental the role of the Vice President was in by-gone days. Michael McGrath plays Secretary Joe Tumulty who is a middleman between all sources which he portrays with the concern that he is not understanding all that is going on. Stephen Spinella plays Colonel Edward House and Stephen Barker Turner plays Dr. Cary Grayson; both of whom are pivotal to the life and workings of the President. One, the doctor, is willing to accept Wilson’s problems. Colonel House is deceptive and wounds Wilson emotionally.
This is a drama that is well worth going to see. Anyone who has an interest in history will find this fascinating to see. It also is intriguing for those who want to watch on stage politics at work as well as how critical relationships are to the success of the presidency and issues in Congress.
Tickets can be purchased on the George Street Playhouse’s website along with more information about the show.