The Second Mrs. Wilson

By David A. Rosenberg

Watch out, Hillary. We’ve already had a female president, if we count the 17 months Edith Wilson secretly acted as de-facto chief executive for her stroke victim husband Woodrow. Joe DiPietro’s “The Second Mrs. Wilson.” having its world premiere at Long Wharf Theater, wraps this explosive, lesser-known bit of history in a conventional framework, making for a safe, unchallenging, still entertaining work that resembles a Wikipedia entry. The play does what it sets out to do -- tell a compelling story in a satisfying, linear fashion – without being particularly approachable emotionally.

DiPietro, author of the Tony-winning musical, “Memphis” (plus “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “Living on Love” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) has written a reliable drawing-room drama. In a wood-paneled setting, complete with pool table and looking more like a men’s club than the White House, political sycophants mill about as if at a smoker.

Although ostensibly about Wilson’s era, the play resonates for today: egghead president, strong woman, congressional intransigence. Wilson ran into trouble when he sought to append the establishment of a peace-keeping League of Nations to the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. Citing American “exceptionalism,” an isolationist Congress, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, objected.

But center stage in DiPietro’s play is the whirlwind courtship and late-life love affair between Edith and Woodrow. Cursory mention is made of Ellen, Woodrow’s free-spirited first wife who died two years into his presidency. He met and married Edith a year later, yet Ellen, in this telling, remains a hovering, though underdeveloped shadow.

Politics is shrewdly set in the context of Edith’s fierce protectiveness. When Woodrow falls ill, besides screening his incoming papers, she screens his visitors. When a congressional delegation insists on seeing him, Edith and his doctor make sure his infirmities are concealed. She’s the very definition of gatekeeper.

It was also an era of budding feminism. Virginia-born Edith, both a direct descendant of Pocahontas and with ancestors who saw nothing wrong owning slaves, was labeled an upstart “woman who knows how to run a household, not appease Europe” and a “parasite in a petticoat.” Woodrow has his own skeletons (an affair with one Mary Peck is mentioned), but reveled in limericks, as well as being a rigid Christian (the treaty is “God’s will”), prompting Lodge to declare he wasn’t “a fan of poetry or piety.”

For all the inherent drama, however, the play lacks suspense and conflict. What’s at stake? It’s all pretty straightforward without reversal, discovery or turning point. DiPietro is content to lay out the issues without confronting them.

Margaret Colin emphasizes Edith’s as upright and single-minded, a steel magnolia who covers her ambition with a sprightly but cutting sense of humor that must have attracted the dour Woodrow. John Glover’s Wilson has outbursts of anger and rectitude that result in the incapacitating stroke. Glover makes the president’s physical drawbacks both frightening and compassionate, without asking for pity.

Under Gordon Edelstein’s atmospheric direction, the cast’s specificity is gratifying: Stephen Barker Turner’s loyal Dr. Grayson, Harry Groener’s conniving Colonel House, Steve Routman’s reluctant vice president, Fred Applegate’s comic relief “simple Joe from New Jersey” and Nick Wyman’s egotistical Lodge. They’re larger than life characters in a tale that gets the audience to first base with three bags to go.

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