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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Second Mrs. Wilson — George Street Playhouse

mrs wilson -- interiorHeaven bless Joe DiPietro for eschewing the current penchant for 90-minute works that dwell on single issues or one character’s stifling neurosis in a staccato shorthand that barely scratches surfaces, yields mostly self-consciously contrived emotional impact, and usually, unless the play’s by Rachel Bonds, covers its subject incompletely and immaturely.

Di Pietro’s “The Second Mrs. Wilson” is a welcome and laudable throwback to an earlier era when playwrights took time to explore subjects and show them from various angles that lead from subtlety to depth. It moves carefully and interestingly towards his main subject, Edith Galt Wilson’s ironclad grip on the national tiller while her husband, 28th U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, is incapacitated by a stroke and Constitutional questions about the legality, let alone the prudence, of him remaining in office while he is unable to fulfill his responsibilities as Commander in Chief.

DiPietro does not rush to the main event or withhold other salient points as he waits for his play’s crucial confrontational moments. He uses the tools of the savvy writer, the time-honored gifts of the storyteller. He paints clear relationships between his characters so we can see where potential conflicts lay and how different personalities might intersect, or even change course, as situations develop and change. He foreshadows, making incidental and blatant mention of Mr. Wilson’s physical condition, including that he had a stroke in 1906, six years before he ran for the Presidency, when he was Governor of New Jersey. He allows supporting characters to develop instead of having them play only functional roles. This makes the atmosphere and the dramatic tension in Mr. Wilson’s White House headier and more conducive to interesting byplay while preparing the audience for political intrigue and critical events to come. He inculcates humor in accordance with a character’s established habits of speech rather than planting lame jokes or forcing satire to fit the contemporary trend. He is not afraid to amblingly reveal a lot of information, some of which may be more peripheral than pertinent, to give greater context to the facts and tactical gambits that will matter as “The Second Mrs. Wilson” comes to its denouement and climax. In essence, DiPietro doesn’t write a theater piece, a quick broad-stroke vignette meant as much to shock as to enlighten or entertain. He gives us a meaty, thought-provoking, informative, and absorbing play that commands our attention while giving us characters and scenes to savor. “The Second Mrs. Wilson” is not a Pantheon work of art, but it is a solid example and creative craftsmanship that does its job as theater, as entertainment, and as a look into a fascinating time in American history, a time that may have affected the future, and certainly touches on the reliance on the Constitution, more than people might have guessed in 1920, the year DiPietro’s play concludes.

In addition to writing a full-fledged play, DiPietro must be congratulated for the careful research and historical accuracy of his piece. I am not one who cares or takes points away from representation pieces that toy with facts to foment dramatic imperatives — How much plays about Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, omit their meeting although such conference never happened in life? — but I find it admirable when a playwright, like DiPietro, can find and create the drama he needs while sticking to the generally accepted view of what happened during Woodrow Wilson’s final year in office and Mr. Wilson’s complicated dealings with his favored advisor, Col. Edward House, and main Congressional adversary, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.

“The Second Mrs. Wilson” unfolds its story gracefully and over time even as Gordon Edelstein’s excellent production keeps them immediate and important. Its sweep and completeness yield dividends by giving context to each individual part and making each new scene seems richer because DiPietro has been so canny in supplying what you need to know to enhance your understanding of a future sequence and any conflict that arises. Nothing in the play seemed rush. All information and all drama seems to arrive right on cue, and artfully so.

Edelstein begins the show before the lights dim on the George Street Playhouse audience. White House attendants efficiently make sure everything on Alexander Dodge’s magnificent set in meticulously in order. Dodge creates a large room that looks like a comfortable club with amply upholstered, stylish chairs, a billiard table, and handsome wooden paneling and cabinetry but actually comprises several rooms in the White House, including the Oval Office, signified by a portentous desk purposefully places front stage center. Along with attendants, members of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet and other government officials pace in thought, break a rack of pool balls, and peruse newspapers and other documents.

Lights go up on a typical day in the White House in 1915. We learn Mr. Wilson continues to mourn the loss of his wife, Ellen, two years earlier. We hear that women’s suffrage, the Great War in Europe, the economy, and the 1916 Presidential election occupy much time. We see the influence of Col. House and the helpfulness of one of Mr. Wilson’s scrappier cabinet members, Joseph Tumulty, a figure whose presence creates a special frisson in New Brunswick, where Tumulty’s family tavern has been a staple on George Street for long enough to be stamped in every local or Rutgers student’s memory. Sen. Lodge, yet unknown to us as Sen. Lodge, remains a curious presence, sitting quietly as he does in a sumptuous chair far upstage right, idly thumbing through a broadsheet newspaper.

A dour Mr. Wilson loosens as he meets a disarming woman at a dinner party he was reluctant to attend. The woman is Edith Galt, a widow, and she unwittingly charms the President with her lively chatter and self-effacing admission about being baffled about what to say next to a President. Animated and gregarious as Edith is, she pleads the Fifth when it comes to knowing anything about politics or issues of the day. Laila Robins, who might be the most unsung among America’s reliably versatile actresses, endows Edith with a lighthearted ingenuousness that mixes with Southern social graces and that self-effacement I mentioned and makes her irresistible. Woodrow Wilson would have to be a concrete block or enamored of grief not to be enchanted with her.

It turns out Mr. Wilson, as played with wit and dignity by John Glover, is not so unsusceptible or inconsolable as to forget his encounter with Edith Galt or her prodigious gifts of breeding and personality. The President is more taken with the young widow than Mrs. Galt is impressed by garnering the interest of the President.

The hearts of two grown people, and how they affect and are affected by politics, informs the next beat of DiPietro’s play.

Like a royal figure, a sitting President cannot just meet a woman and decide to court and woo her, let along determine he wants to be married to her. The place of Edith Galt in Woodrow Wilson’s life becomes as controversial and divisive as the decision about whether or not to come to England and France’s aid in their war against Germany. The most political of Mr. Wilson’s advisors see an election coming up and wonder how the President’s possible remarriage will affect voters. Others want to limit the influence of anyone in Mr. Wilson’s presence and don’t care if the person in question fits more in the categories of romance and domestic bliss than in political partisanship.

As would happen more publicly today, Edith Galt has to be vetted to see if anything in her past precludes her becoming the United States’s First Lady. Her late husband must be investigated as well. As does the Bolling family, into which Edith was born. Different people have varying points of view of Edith as a political wife and hostess at the White House. Mr. Wilson’s love of Edith Galt is secondary to most of those involved than her place as a political asset or liability.

Without calling spotlighted attention to it, DiPietro has paralleled 2015 politics with a look at all that went on in the White House a century earlier.

The past seems more encouraging. There seems to be avenues of discussion and compromise that can get though partisanship and gridlock in a way that is arduous today. DiPietro’s talent is letting us see and be gripped by the political hagglings, especially about the 1916 election, while keeping Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt stage center. One of the best early scenes in “The Second Mrs. Wilson” has the President visiting Edith at her home where the two speak frankly and as mature adults about the prospect of their marrying.

NealBoxEdith is the more reluctant. She doesn’t like politics, feels demeaned about being examined so thoroughly by such subjective and partisan judges and observers, and, most importantly, worries that settling in a new marriage will keep Mr. Wilson from concentrating on affairs that more critically need his attention. Robins plays Edith in a way that reveals her sensitivity and perceptiveness in addition to her affection for Mr. Wilson and sophisticated knowledge of adult emotion. The President may be more worldly when it comes to global politics. Edith has him beat in knowing the way the human heart and Washington society operate.

Noticed the way DiPietro has woven an intimate scene into a larger story. Most playwrights today would ignore the context and the mise en scene to cut right to the main action, Mr. Wilson and Edith discussing and deciding their fate. DiPietro’s structure not only leads to better playwriting but provides levels and high points that becomes more engaging and emotionally fulfilling because they offer contrast and change-of-pace in addition to needed and specific dramatic upheavals.

Juxtaposing general with critical scenes becomes a pattern in DiPietro’s play. The style is effective and harkens back, favorably, to the well-made plays of Arthur Miller or Lillian Hellman as well as to the best of political plays such as Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man.”

Scenes with and involving Edith work their way into “The Second Mrs. Wilson’s” larger framework. You see DiPietro’s experience as a writer, and a playwright, in the way he insinuates rather than forces Edith into the main action of the play. DiPietro doesn’t show Edith scheming to acquire more power or influence as much as he shows her attaining it by virtue of being in the White House milieu, speaking constantly to the President and being an ear to his verbal recounting of day and its travails, and paying more attention about all that is being discussed around her. Edward House, Joe Tumulty, and Henry Cabot Lodge are not going to talk about fashion or who escorted Mrs. Entwhistle to the latest cotillion. Edith is now immersed in talk about campaigning, election strategy, and issues, including American entry into World War I. Ironically, in a play that leads to a woman wielding full Presidential power, “The Second Mrs. Wilson” only glancingly touches on women’ s suffrage even the issue comes to head in the late teens of the 20th century, and the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote in passed in Woodrow Wilson’s final year in office, 1920, when Edith Wilson is the virtual President.

The one small weakness in DiPietro’s script, the one that caused me to give “The Second Mrs. Wilson” an A- rather an A when I graded it in a capsule review, is the discussion of issues gets tedious during the end of the first act, even though the subject is one that will dominate the entire second act, the place of Mr. Wilson’s pet project, the League of Nations, in the Versailles Treaty ending World War I and in the annals of American politics.

To DiPietro’s credit, controversy about the League of Nations becomes more engrossing in the second act. The League, though it stands on its own as an issue, is a catalyst for depicting the wheeling-dealing nature of effective politics in “The Second Mrs. Wilson.” The League is not debated in terms of its merits but used as a hot potato to test Woodrow Wilson’s resolve and, just as tellingly, to gauge his willingness to compromise to save some of what he wants from the oblivion to which it is heading if he stands stubbornly firm.

Mr. Wilson, House, Lodge, Tumulty, and Edith all come to the fore at various times in the second act. Edelstein’s ensemble performs sublimely well, and you see high-stakes politics as much as the confluence of personalities and intrinsic drama throughout this act.

Dynamics change constantly. Edward House is hero, villain, hero, and villain again as all proceeds. Henry Cabot Lodge is a wily opponent who has solid ground on which to stand but is willing to give President Wilson concessions if the President will only compromise. Woodrow Wilson has his career-ending stroke — He at one point contemplates running for a third term, which would be legal in 1920. — and Glover plays its stages, and Mr. Wilson’s ability within his dysfunction, well. Edith, meanwhile, plays a wife’s role that is so far-reaching it has political ramifications and threatens Congressional and Constitutional ruling and intervention.

Edith Wilson iron-handedly takes charge of the recovery of Woodrow Wilson. She will not let important members of the government, including Vice President Thomas Marshall, visit the President. She speaks directly to Mr. Wilson and relays his thoughts. When he incapable of thought, she provides them. She also signs Presidential documents and conducts correspondence in Mr. Wilson’s name to other world leaders.

Edith is, in short, the de facto President of the United States. Not out of desire or ambition but purely out of practicality and her insisting she rule her domestic roost. Lodge, House, and Marshall talk of invoking the Constitution and naming Marshall head of the government while the President is unable to function in his office. Edith asks how long Marshall remains President if Mr. Wilson recovers. The Constitution makes no provision for returning the Presidency once another is sworn into the job. Tumulty and others wonder whether their power would be eroded under a Marshall administration and make no overt moves to replace Mr. Wilson with his healthier V.P. Lodge makes loud noises about having Mr. Wilson hand power to Marshall, but for him, such threats are a political tool to curry compromise. In today’s world of scrutiny, transparency, and vindictiveness, this controversy about Mr. Wilson’s fitness and Mr. Marshall’s succession would not be allowed to linger. News agencies and politicians would be all over the place demanding one thing or another. In 1920, the status quo and the move, if not the conspiracy (because there was no real conspiracy) was preserved. Appearances prevailed, and Woodrow Wilson remained President.

In this last quarter of “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” DiPietro once again shows his mettle by making us care about the outcome of the League of Nations debate and letting Edith’s virtual takeover of the U.S. government happen quite naturally instead of as a conscious grab for power or anything more than an incidental coup d’etat.

The play derives its tension from several sources, all of them equal in terms of importance and dramatic ammunition. You are engrossed as you listen to various discussions and witness political maneuvers. Edith’s steadfastness is moving. She is a woman determined to preserve her husband’s position and legacy. “The Second Mrs. Wilson” is so good, it even creates theatrical hay out of a question we are driven to ask ourselves (and to which DiPietro wisely only hints at an answer), if the course of history would have changed if Woodrow Wilson had been consistently conscious enough to call all of his own shots and whether he would have secured a longer lasting legacy if he accepted Henry Cabot Lodge’s compromise which Edith, acting is his stead and believing she knew the President’s wishes, did not.

You see how crowded “The Second Mrs. Wilson” is with incident and ideas, all of which work for the better and make DiPietro’s play and wonderful, enriching, and fulfilling theater experience.

Edelstein’s production is smooth and compelling. You have no trouble distinguishing the different characters that take the stage, and discussion are paced and pitched to warrant your close attention. Alexander Dodge’s set, in addition to being handsome and physically impressive, leaves lots of room for action to take place and space on the sidelines where you can occasionally see Lodge or another official hovering, contemplating, or just enjoying an easy hour.

Edelstein’s cast is uniformly superb. Edith Galt Wilson is a complex woman with a friendly demeanor whose arc takes her being an intelligent, if not informed, socialite to one who must stand against the authorized with both impunity and self-assurance to keep her husband the most powerful man in the United States and to exercise his office in his name. Laila Robins capably covers all bases.

Robins is about as natural an actor as you can get. She fully becomes her character. The dark wig in a fashionable hairdo is not all that erases the actual Robins from plain sight. This is a performer who becomes her character. From the beginning of “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” you see Edith Galt evolving and progressing as opposed to Laila Robins playing different moods and attitudes. Her opening Edith is a vivaciously talkative partygoer who might be a tad freer and more garrulous than usual because she knows she’s talking to the President of the United States.

Robins is careful to appear frivolous and uninvolved in politics or world affairs while never turning Edith silly, vain, or dismissive to matters outside her immediate existence.

There’s a palpable reality to this Edith. You can see where Woodrow Wilson would be drawn to her wit and easy style even if her grasp of the Great War or care about the 1916 Presidential election is, at this point, sparse to non-existent. Like a latter day Blanche du Bois, and with an accent that can be used for Blanche, Robins shows Edith as one who is gifted in the art of conversation and who can entertain and make exchanges without worrying about whether her comments have substance befitting her auditor. She is a woman of poise and grace. And one who will offer opinions when she has them but will just as likely say she hasn’t a clue where to stand on an issue or controversy. There’s honesty and humility along with self-confidence in Edith.

As Edith enters the world of the White House, and has to pass muster with the Houses, Tumultys, and others of note, Robins shows her to be a quick learner who, once again, is unafraid to admit what she doesn’t understand or why she should care about a specific matter. You visibly see Robins’s Edith become more comfortable with her surroundings, more versed on issues, and more willing to state a point of view. Robins doesn’t just change because conditions of Edith’s life has. She adapts. She grows into a different person. The open, friendly personality remains, but Edith ceases to seem frivolous and is easily engaged in exchanges about weighty matters, usually taking her husband’s side but at times being independent. Her alternative points of view may even begin to sway the President, just as his explanations can soften or cause her to revise her reactions to situations. In the first act of “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” the politics don’t matter as much. They are in the background while the concentration is on Edith’s evolution. The issues Mr. Wilson’s cabinet debates are genuine topics of the day, but they can be interchanged in the first act without the audience knowing or caring. By the second act, the end of World War I and the creation of The League of Nations is the focus, and here the issue is the centerpiece with how Edith fits into the debate being one cog in a larger story.

By this point, Robins is the fiercely protective wife. She has lost one husband. She wants to keep her current husband alive. He may be the President of the United States, but she and a doctor will be the only ones permitted to see or talk to him, and she will report his will and act on his behalf in official matters.

When challenged that she is unelected and that Vice President Marshall should be making executive decisions, Robins’s Edith firmly declares, “I am his wife, and I will act in his behalf.”

A dual battle is fought, one about how government should operate given Mr. Wilson’s inability to preside, one about the League of Nations, and both fascinating from political, legal, and human perspectives.

mrs. wilson -- interior 2“The Second Mrs. Wilson” has grown into quite a heady and controversial play, and Laila Robins as Edith Galt Wilson has grown right along with the it. The play and the character run on parallel tracks, the script being the fuel, Robins being the engine that ultimately drives the action and makes “The Second Mrs. Wilson” riveting in its last sequences.

Robins’s is a remarkably nuanced, intelligently conceived, and unshowily expressive performance. It fits for Edith and serves DiPietro’s play beautifully.

John Glover is equally complete as Woodrow Wilson.

The images we see of Mr. Wilson always make his seem serious and without humor. Glover gives him dimension and humanity. You can see the college president and politician in the man. There’s the wink in the eye when he knows he’s snowing an adversary or planning to be mischievous in regards to Edith. There’s the look of appreciation that lights his face within a minute of hearing Edith’s chattering about being bashful around a President.

Glover is not playing an image. He’s playing a man, and while he shows the authority and conviction of President Wilson, he also shows the side that can respond to a versatile woman and enjoy life away from politics or serious consideration.

In the second act, Glover faces the challenge of playing a diminished man. Mr. Wilson is already ill when he goes to Paris and, eventually, has his crippling stroke. Glover shows the President’ strain by drawing his face a tad thinner and by his gait which seems labored and exaggerated. He creates a moment of terror with the expression on his face as Mr. Wilson falls.

Once bed-ridden in the White House, Glover’s President does even more remarkable work. He conveys the direness of Mr. Wilson’s condition while showing glimmers of the witty man the President once was.

As with Robins, Glover’s acting in the last part of “The Second Mrs. Wilson” seems totally natural. You don’t see an actor straining to play ill or self-consciously determining how to show lucidity or even anger and resolve through his incapacitation. You see someone roused to or by the moment, a man who had retained enough faculties to communicate in character, and with definition, when it counts.

Glover creates some suspense within his performance. There’s one scene in Mr. Wilson be will scrutinized by government officials who have coerced Edith, by threatening to declare the President unfit by act of Congress, to visit him and determine whether he should be permitted to remain in office. We know and have seen that the President wavers in ability to understand all that is said to him and to issue a logical response. As the delegation judging him enters the room, we share with Edith the hope the President will rally, a sign by the way that we are rooting for the Wilsons even though they may be wrong to retain power and wrong about The League of Nations, and will send Lodge, Marshall and others away knowing their nefarious mission is for naught.

History, of course, settled that situation 95 years ago, but DiPietro, Edelstein, and company have made it so immediate, we fret over an outcome we already know.

That’s the mark of an effective production.

Sherman Howard is smart and entertaining as Henry Cabot Lodge. Large in size and personality, Howard’s Lodge looks humorously on most situations. There’s a smile in his eye and laugh in his voice even when he is at his most threatening or dangerous.

Howard’s Lodge loves the game of politics, and he knows he plays it well. He leads the opposition and takes it as his job to bedevil Woodrow Wilson.

The good thing is Lodge believes all he is espousing. Oh, he might plot a move at times to deny the President a bill or vote for competition’s sake, but he is a man of conviction, differing convictions from the President’s, and he goes about his business as honorably as Mr. Wilson tends his, each willing to twist an arm or press a point a little. That’s politics.

Unlike today’s politicians, Howard’s Lodge has magnitude. He commands respect on sight and certainly expects some fealty as his due. There’s shrewdness and intelligence in his bearing, not the smugness and petulance we find in all quarters, from the White House to both sides of the campaign stump in our dwarfish times.

As noted, “The Second Mrs. Wilson” appropriately leads you to the side of the Wilsons, but Lodge speaks with logic and authority. Outside of DiPietro’s play, many may be glad he prevailed.

We are certainly glad about the way DiPietro and Edelstein presented the civil give and take of politics on stage. We see the art and science of the field, not babies from two parties puling to have their extreme way that serves no one and embarrasses the enfranchised.

Stephen Spinella deftly negotiates the complex figure of Edward House, President Wilson’s closest advisor but one that, from the beginning, could not get along or learn to like Edith Bolling Galt. Not even before she became more attuned to politics.

Spinella’s House has to walk the line between seasoned pro and a man who has to plead for the confidence of a man he’s always advised well and seen through difficult times. He also has to muster the strength to fight with President Wilson for what he thinks is right even after he has been dismissed by the Wilsons as a traitor and a disgrace.

Spinella handles this balancing act being assurance and humility well. He is a man who puts what he believes is in the best interest of the country ahead of his pride or the enmity of the Wilsons, particularly Mrs. Wilson. You see Spinella swallowing hard as he persists in wanting to present a case to the President even though Edith is rebuffing him, and Mr. Wilson is reluctant to see him. These late scenes contrast with first-act sequences in which House is the key person in Wilson’s world, the advisor who can change and redirect Woodrow Wilson’s mind.

Michael McGrath sheds his usual role of the musical comedy clown to bring humor and working class scrappiness to the role of Joseph Tumulty.

Though Tumulty comes from obviously different ranks from Mr. Wilson and most of his team, he shows the loyalty and street smartness of one who won’t give up no matter how hard or deviously you pull the rope between his jaws.

Costumer Linda Cho has the savvy to dress Tumulty in a way that is flashier and less refined than the others on stage. His suit is cream colored while all others are charcoal or navy. His hair is slicked back with visible pomade while the others have haircuts that show their attention to grooming and boast of being upper class.

McGrath is moving as a man in the middle, one who believes Woodrow Wilson should be replaced as President but who, out of loyalty to the President and to preserve his own position, will express such thoughts through posture and nervous gesture rather than speaking them outright. McGrath’s Tumulty is always the one at the President’s side when others threaten to attack him or his right to remain in office.

Richmond Hoxie is both comic and sincere as Thomas Marshall, the Vice President who, like every V.P. from John Adams on, disparages his thankless job but needs to know if the President’s condition means it will lead to the Presidency.

Hoxie is subtly funny as Marshall speaks of his uselessness. He is even funnier when you realize he doesn’t want to be President. Lodge calls his Marshall the most unambitious man in politics. Yet there is the sense that Hoxie’s Marshall is ready if called upon to be the 29th President of United States, a honor, it turns out, that be reserved for Warren Harding.

Hoxie approaches all of his lines with humor. Some have sarcasm in them to meet him half-way. He also deftly affects the slight limp Marshall historically had and a wry expression that shows with how little seriousness Marshall regards himself.

Stephen Barker Turner is steady and stalwart as Woodrow Wilson’s doctor, who also serves as a political advisor to the President. Turner’s Dr. Grayson can be stern and take charge when necessary. I was impressed with the consistency and sincerity with which Turner played the role. He converted what could be a throwaway role into an integral part of Edelstein’s production. Brian McCann, Christopher C. Gibbs, and Andre Penn are correctly invisible as White House and other attendants.

Alexander Dodge’s set is the top. It so suggests the dignity of Washington and the White House while serving when necessary as Edith Galt’s home or Henry Cabot Lodge’s Senate office. Linda Cho does a fine job dressing all in the styles of a century ago. Her dresses for Edith are especially appropriate and in keeping with whatever occasion was taking place. I especially liked the deep green dress Edith wears while tending to the President and serving as quasi-President.

“The Second Mrs. Wilson” runs through Sunday, November 29, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick, N.J. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26. Tickets range from $69 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 732-246-7717 or by visiting www.georgestplayhouse.org.

 

 

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