“The Second Mrs. Wilson” at Long Wharf Theatre
By Brooks Appelbaum
In a play called The Second Mrs. Wilson, an audience might expect to see dramatized the complexities and the innermost thoughts of the title character -- all interpreted, of course, by the playwright. Author Joe DiPietro, however, loses this focus on Mrs. Wilson in his world premiere drama, running at Long Wharf Theatre through May 31 and ending the theatre’s 50th anniversary season. DiPietro certainly illuminates a fascinating and little known era in presidential history. But he fails to give us a searching study of Edith Wilson, so we are left wondering what story he really wants to tell.
Factually, The Second Mrs. Wilson is set during a time rife with dramatic stories. First, months after the death of his beloved first wife, Woodrow (John Glover) meets and is charmed by the alluring and intelligent Edith Galt (Margaret Colin). In spite of politically driven objections (how will a second marriage look on the eve of an election?), the president and Edith marry, and the country embraces them both.
Then we have the story of Wilson’s fight to broker peace after WWI by negotiating The Treaty of Versailles and creating The League of Nations, neither of which is popular in a Congress led by his nemesis, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman). Thus, Wilson and his wife begin a whistle-stop campaign to gain the support of the American people.
Here Edith’s story comes to the fore. In the midst of this campaign, Wilson suffers a debilitating stroke. Edith refuses to allow Vice President Thomas Marshall (Steve Routman) to take over and instead covertly assumes the role of her husband’s “steward” (her words). For the six months of his illness, she controlled everything her husband read and whom he saw, deciding for him “what was important and what was not.”
Any one of these stories could make a compelling historical drama, but DiPietro, mistakenly, attempts to tell them all. We are most curious about Edith’s work as self-appointed head of state during her husband’s illness. DiPietro’s Edith is certainly a central character, and the marvelous Colin does all she can with the role. But the author has given Edith only one motive (to protect her husband) and relatively few facets (affection for Wilson, pain at their predicament, and scorn for everyone else). She is, mainly, the mistress of the zinger.
We do hear one moving testament to her exhaustion and distress. She admits to Wilson, thinking he is too ill to understand, that she feels as if she were under water with a cement block tied to her feet. However, this is our only view of her inner thoughts. And we never learn what even a cursory look at historical documents tells us: that Edith -- like any human being, and all the more so in an embattled, old-boy world -- had significant vanities, flaws, and prejudices. By disregarding many of Edith’s significantly questionable decisions, DiPietro strips the character of her complete dramatic potential.
Fortunately, Edelstein and Set Designer Alexander Dodge highlight Edith’s difficult situation by creating an elaborate, dark, and cavernous interior. Men play pool upstage, chairs are scarce, and we feel that we are looking through Edith’s eyes at a vast foreign terrain. Yet as Edith becomes more and more the master of this terrain -- finally sealing its boundaries -- the set doesn’t shift with her. Had the lighting drawn tighter as her influence grew, the production could have even more powerfully illustrated her simultaneous claustrophobia and control.
The playwright seems most interested in Woodrow Wilson’s complex and ultimately tragic tale. The clearest over-arching story here consists of Wilson’s fight for his League of Nations, the loss of his friend Edward House (Harry Groener), his unquestioning identification as an instrument of God, and his struggle with the stroke that all but destroyed him. As directed by Edelstein, John Glover finds Wilson’s often painful complexity, never shying away from a single element of this man, whether endearing or maddening. He plays with equal force the spry and fervent lover, the playful creator of limericks, the impassioned protector of young men dying needlessly in war, and the unbending ideologue. As a stroke victim, he presents us with a bravura physical performance.
All the other actors comport themselves terrifically, especially Fred Applegate as Secretary Joe Tumulty. Only one casting mistake skews the proceedings: Steve Routman in the role of Vice President Marshall. Since Routman can too easily become a comic figure, and since the script contains a few comical moments at the Vice President’s expense, both DiPietro and Edelstein lose the opportunity to mine the Vice President’s predicament, which is both delicate and sad.
Ironically, Wilson himself sums up what is missing here. Proposing to Edith, he described his world as a place in which “time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences..." He could not have realized the sad accuracy, and irony, of his words, but DiPietro can. To be fully successful, The Second Mrs. Wilson needs to probe more deeply the human experience of Edith herself.