The timing could not be better for a keen look at the role played by an intelligent, strong, dedicated, and purposeful woman, namely Edith, the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, in running the country. This happened exactly a century ago during the 17 months that the 28th president of United States was physically incapacitated by a paralyzing stroke. To make things more brutally unfair was his severe disappointment by the failure, led by his political nemesis Henry Cabot Lodge, to get congress to confirm his dream for peace in the world though a League of Nations.
Apparently Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was the right person in the right place to see that her suddenly handicapped husband would continue as commander-in-chief. Perhaps more importantly, she steadfastly guarded his privacy as well as his office from unwanted visitors. Call it interpretive political history, “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” is by the prolific, award-winning Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”). A favorite at George Street Playhouse, where this production just opened, DiPietro has had five productions of his plays performed there, including the award-winning “The Toxic Avenger” and “Clever Little Lies” (currently running Off Broadway.)
This production of “The Second Mrs. Wilson” follows its world premiere this past spring at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, and includes some members of that cast. Without going overboard in my enthusiasm and that of the opening night audience, I can say that it is a vastly entertaining, consistently engrossing, partially revelatory, and politically infused play. It is set within the White House in what appears to be a huge reception and billiard room — and watching seven men playing billiards on stage before the start of the play is amusing. This handsomely furnished stunner — one that also serves the action for a number of locations — is by set designer Alexander Dodge and notable for its dark oak paneling and columns and parquet floors. A partial view of the Capitol can be seen through one of the windows.
The action, much of it melodramatically inclined, focuses on the closely knit relationship/marriage between the widow Edith and Woodrow that began only a year after the death of Woodrow’s first wife, Ellen, about whom the play addresses in passing: A few choice remarks about how she was the preferred first lady, if only for two years. Act I is mainly divided by the political tension between the president and Congress (“The Republicans are monopolizing the Senate floor”) and his aggressive romancing of Edith. In Act II, Edith creates the tension with Congress by serving steadfastly as the president’s voice. Keeping the president safe from the press and intrusive politicos is a full time job. Aided by a physician to withhold the seriousness of his condition, Virginia-born Edith (Laila Robins) quickly and not too quietly is seen as a solid defensive force with which to be reckoned. Often as not making enemies along the way (“She’s a parasite in a petticoat”), she engagingly uses her brittle wit as she enjoys presenting herself as a contrast to Woodrow’s public image of being an “egghead” as well as “grim and humorless.” With the help of DiPietro’s pithy script we see him as she does as being “very different than the impression the public has of you.”
A terrific John Glover is Woodrow, and he is playing one of the more outstanding roles in his long and estimable career. A religious, contentious, and uncompromising character prone to sudden outbursts of temper, Woodrow is also seen as a fan of limericks, some of his own making. His gift for light-hearted romancing and singing to Edith “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” brings levity to the more intense concerns of the play.
The cast, under Gordon Edelstein’s firm direction, nicely evokes the aura and the era without any of them being archly anachronistic. Costume designer Linda Cho has created some exceptionally beautiful dresses for Robins, the only woman in the cast. Robins is extraordinarily winning as Edith. She not only exudes charm but also creates a memorable image of a devoted, impassioned woman with savvy and esprit to spare. Glover makes a commanding case for Woodrow as an unconquerable invalid.
But I suspect you will remember best his Woodrow as a middle-aged romantic and an even more passionate advocate for peace in the world. Excellent performances from Stephen Spinella as the duplicitous Colonel House; Stephen Barker Turner, as the Edith’s abetting Dr. Grayson; Michael McGrath as the good-for-a-laugh secretary (from New Jersey), Joe Tumulty; Sherman Howard, as the arrogantly self-serving Lodge; and Richmond Hoxie, as the lame (in both senses of the word) vice-president, Thomas Marshall.
The splendid lighting design by Ben Stanton casts an unpretentious glow on one of the grandest pretensions the White House ever pulled off. It may not all be history, as we really don’t know what was said back then, but what DiPietro has them say is clever, amusing, and craftily designed to make us think a little more about a certain independent woman in the White House as well as that formidable man behind her. This is certainly the best play about a president and his first lady since “Sunrise at Campobello.”
The Second Mrs. Wilson, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through November 29. $25 to $74. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org