Monday, May 18, 2015

Theater Review: The Second Mrs. Wilson -- Long Wharf

Margaret Colin and John Glover. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
A Look Into the History of America’s 'First Woman President'
By Lauren Yarger
For those of you thinking Hillary Clinton is making a bid to be the first female president of the United States, you might not realize that America already has had a woman calling the shots in the Oval Office. Well, technically speaking, that is.

The Second Mrs. Wilson, Joe DiPietro’s look at the first woman believed to run the country, is getting its world premiere as Long Wharf Theatre closes out its 50th anniversary season. It is a study of Edith Wilson (played by the always excellent Margaret Colin), who effectively ran the government while her husband, President Woodrow Wilson (an also excellent John Glover), was incapacitated by a stroke.

Act One of the drama plays out like a love story. Wilson, surrounded by his political cronies, Secretary Joe Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Col. Edward House (Harry Groener), fights adversaries like Sen Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman) who opposes Wilson’s League of Nations dream for world peace attached to the Treaty of Versailles and tries to overcome his crushing grief at the loss of his wife, Ellen.

When he meets widow Edith Galt, he is smitten and decides he has found a supporter, not only in the role of wife, but in political matters as well. Edith, not very interested in world matters – she only is aware of the war as it affected her plans to travel to Paris to do some shopping – is not quickly persuaded to accept his proposal. House and Tumulty are opposed, especially once they see their influence with the president begin to diminish. Edith doesn’t trust House, and through a serious of circumstances around negotiations to get the peace treaty signed in Paris, Wilson also begins to doubt him.

Edith finally does consent to be the second Mrs. Wilson and in 1919, headaches that have been plaguing her husband, under the questionable care of Dr. Cary Grayson (Stephen Barker Turner), result in a debilitating stroke. Before the 25th amendment to the constitution  providing for succession when the president is unable to fulfill his duties and faced with an unpopular, ineffective Vice President Thomas Marshall (Steve Routman), Edith decides to hide her husband’s condition from the press and the nation and to be his sole contact with the outside world.

Aided by Dr. Grayson, she reports the president’s continued progress while deciding which correspondence and information reaches him. Tumulty and Marshall protest being kept away and Lodge raises questions about why the American people haven’t seen the president. Edith finally arranges a brief meeting and Wilson rallies to appear that he is still in control. Meanwhile, questions are raised about how much Edith is discussing policy with him or making it on her own until the couple left the White House in 1921.

Director Gordon Edelstein coaches excellent performances across the board – Routman is particularly fine as the hapless vice president who wants to stand for what is right, offers compromises on the League of Nations’ authority to gain Lodge’s support, but who has no desire to assume the presidency. The action takes place on Alexander Dodge’s set designed to look like an old boys club, with dark wood trim, period lighting fixtures and even a pool table for a few friendly games while politics are discussed. Edith is a striking contrast to the environment in romantic dresses, easily updated for scene changes, designed by Linda Cho.

DiPietro takes a bit of license with the historical accuracy of the characters and the actions, but this is usually a plus in the theater, where a blow-by-blow historical account of everything a character said or did gets boring very quickly. Instead, DiPietro (Memphis, The Toxic Avenger, Nice Work if You Can Get it) gives us a lot of his trademark humor – and a fairly accurate picture of a little-known period of American history that is fascinating and guaranteed to have you Googling the facts immediately after seeing the play.

“I just love working on history plays," DiPietro said. " I love bringing a dramatist’s sharpness and wit to it. I like making history lively and relevant, and show the humanity of the participants."

He immersed himself in the time period, reading biographies of  Edith and woodrow, according to press materials, as well as histories and documentaries of the tumultuous period following World War I.

“My belief is research, research, research, then put it away and start writing the play,” DiPietro said. “It is not a documentary. It is my dramatic interpretation, but it sticks very closely to the facts. I wanted to show what it was like to be a strong, shrewd woman at a time when women couldn’t yet vote in every state,” he said.

Colin, who brings likability to any character she portrays, is excellently cast as she keeps Edith from seeming too manipulative. There is warmth in her, even as devout Christian Wilson faces a scandal over correspondence with a woman from his past and who, in his infirmity, calls out for his first wife.  Glover embodies Wilson – he looks like him and appears to be just as I have imagined the 28th president of the United States when learning about him from school lessons and history books. Too bad more isn’t taught about the wife who effectively served as president. Maybe we will hear more about her if Hillary tries to make 16 Pennsylvania Avenue her address again.

The Second Mrs. Wilson runs through May 31 on Stage II at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $25-$75: www.longwharf.org; 203-787-4282.

View a trailer here:

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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