The Second Mrs. Wilson Stands By Her Man
By Amy J. Barry
Politics don’t change much. Almost a century ago, following War I, Democratic president and pacifist Woodrow Wilson was trying to get the U.S. to join the newly created League of Nations to avoid another great war and more bloodshed of young American soldiers. Republicans, out for their own political gain, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, opposed and ultimately blocked Wilson’s dream from becoming reality.
This is one of the themes in The Second Mrs. Wilson by Joe DiPietro, premiering at Long Wharf Theater under the direction of Gordon Edelstein.
But the play’s bigger focus is on a story that’s not often told. As the title implies, it centers on Wilson’s second marriage, to Edith Bolling Galt, and the influence and power she had over decisions that affected both the country and the world.
John Glover plays President Wilson. It’s less than a year after the death of his first wife, Ellen that he meets Edith, played by Margaret Colin, and even though Wilson is still grieving, they begin a courtship. Early on in their relationship he not only asks her opinions and defers to her on major foreign policy issues, but asks her to marry him, just prior to his re-election, to his party’s chagrin.
Glover isn’t particularly presidential in his depiction of Wilson. For a man of his stature, he appears kind of goofy, needy, and terribly dependent on his wives, first Ellen and now Edith. But maybe DiPietro uncovered these lesser-known personality traits in his research for the play -- or took some creative license, which he admits to doing overall in the script.
In the second act, after Wilson suffers a debilitating stroke, Glover’s performance is impressive. His convincing facial and body contortions, confused and frightened speech, leaves no doubt that he’s a partially paralyzed stroke victim.
Colin smoothly takes on the part of the attractive, gracious Edith with her subtle southern accent. She, like Woodrow, was born in Virginia. Colin depicts Edith as a true feminist among sexist men -- principled, candid, witty, and shrewd—teetering on sarcastic, but always remaining dignified.
One of the play’s more interesting relationships is that between Edith and Colonel Edward House, played by Harry Groener. House is Wilson’s long-time friend and confidante. Edith doesn’t trust him and thinks he will betray her husband. They spar with words, each holding their own. When the Colonel puts Edith down for being a “woman,” she responds, “I have lived my life exceeding the expectations of men.”
But even in the end it’s left nicely ambiguous whether Edith is right and House was duplicitous or he did have Wilson’s best interests in mind and it was her interference that caused the break in their relationship.
Also fascinating is what happens after Wilson’s stroke. Edith, so devoted to her husband, is allowed, although not happily, by Wilson’s advisors, to make enormous decisions he is incapable of making -- even forging his name on documents -- because there were no precedents about how to handle a president felled by a stroke while in office.
Although his role isn’t large, Steve Routman gives a fine performance as Vice President Thomas Marshall. Even though he’s the next in line to become president, Marshall has been dismissed as clueless -- he’s admittedly been kept in the dark -- and Routman pointedly expresses the frustration of the difficult position in which his character finds himself.
Nick Wyman has the booming, authoritative voice of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge down pat, and Stephen Barker Turner as Dr. Cary Grayson, conveys the pressure the doctor is under, pulled between caring for his patient, Edith’s demands to keep Wilson’s stroke hush-hush, and the public’s right to know what’s happening to their president, who has literally disappeared for three months. Fred Applegate provides some wry humor as Secretary Joe Tumult of New Jersey.
The play’s action all takes place in a handsome dark-paneled library complete with a full-size pool table, designed by Alexander Dodge. The scene is unchanging from one act to the next, yet the actors’ body language and positions on stage, carefully choreographed by Edelstein, along with Christopher Akerlind’s mood-changing lighting, gives a feeling of fluidity and movement to the production. Linda Cho’s costumes are period correct down to the smallest details -- Edith’s outfits are particularly lovely.
There are a number of questions left unanswered at the end of the play. Not that everything has to be neatly wrapped up, but we are left wishing we’d gotten to know the characters a little more fully and what motivated many of their decisions. And also, what DiPietro intends for us to come away with -- the “moral of the story.”
Footnote of local interest: I was surprised to discover in the new book Remarkable Women of Old Lyme by Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson that Wilson’s first wife Ellen spent many summers in Old Lyme as a guest and resident artist at Miss Florence Griswold’s boarding house, accompanied by Woodrow during the summers of 1909-1910. The authors report that Ellen gave up her artistic ambitions to become First Lady. Ironically, it is in the White House that Edith discovers her political ambitions.
The Second Mrs.Wilson is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven, through May 31. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org