Long Wharf Theatre, Main Stage, New Haven: What happens to the presidency when the President of the United States has been taken seriously ill? When does he/she relinquish the most powerful position in the world?
These questions are at the heart of Long Wharf’s current production of The Second Mrs. Wilson, written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Gordon Edelstein. First and foremost, this play is a touching romantic love story. It is also a play about betrayal and loyalty at the highest level of government. Whether a historian, diehard romantic, or political aficionado, this work holds an audience member’s attention from the first moment to the last.
During the first act, the overpowering love relationship between Edith and Woodrow is established in the bright spotlight, with worried presidential advisors in the shadowy background. The second act widens the spotlight to include President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919. His then second wife, Edith, does not want him removed from office. With only his doctor and one trusted official knowing of the seriousness of his condition, Edith keeps his debilitating stroke symptoms a closely guarded secret and essentially she runs the country.
The good old boys club of politicians resents Edith from the get-go. When Woodrow’s first wife Ellen passed away, the President grieved so deeply, that his good friends worried about him. However, when he met Edith, everything changed.
In DiPietro’s play, Woodrow falls passionately in love with this woman. His closest advisors and his Democratic colleagues are appalled by the fact that Woodrow shares all government matters with her. She is more in the information loop than the vice president and certainly more than any of the senators. Therefore, she steps in as the de facto president.
While she protects the office of the presidency, she does so by protecting the man she loves with a deep and undying devotion. Theirs was a true love story. Not only does she protect her husband, but she does whatever she can to promote his wish to get the League of Nations established. Ultimately and overly simplified in this play, the League of Nations failed to secure its mission which was to prevent another war from happening after World War I.
What works so well for this play is that one feels like an insider to the goings on in the White House. The Democrats and Republicans are at each others’ proverbial throats and ambition runs as wild as a teenager’s hormones. It is amazing that a play set in the early 1900s mirrors so precisely what goes on with Democrats and Republicans to this day. It’s also refreshing to see a play where a woman of convictions and substance can stand up to the men in power.
Margaret Colin steps into that role of Edith Wilson and paints a strong visual portrait of a powerful woman motivated by love with just as much authority as her character. John Glover not only carries the challenging role of President Wilson as lover and stroke victim, but burns the image of a peace-loving man into one’s memory. Nick Wyman as Republican opponent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge is quite forceful and Harry Groener as trusted friend and betrayer punctuates his role with drama. Rounding off the cast are Stephen Barker Turner, Fred Applegate, Steve Routman, Harvey Martin, and Mark Heinisch.
In Gordon Edelestein’s tradition of excellence, the production is superior. Alexander Dodge’s set design is exquisite as are Linda Cho’s costumes, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, and John Gromada’s sound design and original music. Overall, this is a play not to be missed. It runs through May 31. Box office: 203-787-3 4282.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org