‘The Second Mrs. Wilson’: New drama revisits White House coup

Laila Robins plays the title character in "The Second Mrs. Wilson," with, from left, Sherman Howard, Stephen Barker Turner and Michael McGrath.


Laila Robins plays the title character in “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” with, from left, Sherman Howard, Stephen Barker Turner and Michael McGrath.

“This is lunacy,” says Vice President Thomas Marshall in the new play, “The Second Mrs. Wilson.”

“No, this is Washington,” responds Joe Tumulty, President’s Woodrow Wilson’s Private Secretary (basically, his chief of staff).

The play, which is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Nov. 29, looks back at some behind-the-scenes governmental maneuvering that makes most modern political scandals look petty in comparison.

I’d hesitate to call the Gordon Edelstein-directed play a historical drama, though. While it’s undeniably true that President Wilson suffered a stroke during his second term, in 1919, which left him severely impaired, and that his wife, Edith, played a vital role in governing from that point on, no one except those two and a few trusted advisers really knew what was going on. And so “The Second Mrs. Wilson” is really a bit of imagined history: This is how it could have happened.

My biggest problem with the play has to do with playwright Joe DiPietro’s depiction of his main character. Edith (Laila Robins), who meets President Wilson (John Glover) soon after his first wife dies, is a smug know-it-all who seems to look down on everyone around her. Not exactly someone we want to root for when she faces the fight of her life in the second act.

And regarding that fight: Though DiPietro makes it clear that Mrs. Wilson seizes power for the right reasons (loyalty to her husband and his idealistic political agenda), the bottom line is that her actions amounted to a calculated deception of the American people. DiPietro seems to regard this as more of a gray area than I do. He seems to sees a moral dilemma here, whereas to me, there’s no question: This was a bad idea, and she shouldn’t have done it.

Maybe in 1919 it was possible to view this as a benign act. But after the lies of the Nixon and George W. Bush administrations … no, I’m not buying it.

There’s also a feminist message here — why can’t all these small-minded, power-hungry male politicians just do what this sensible lady wants them to do? — that I felt was delivered rather heavy-handedly.

John Glover, left, and Sherman Howard play Woodrow Wilson and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge in "The Second Mrs. Wilson."

John Glover, left, and Sherman Howard play Woodrow Wilson and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge in “The Second Mrs. Wilson.”

“The Second Mrs. Wilson” is cleverly staged. The back half of the stage is meant to look like a luxurious, wood-paneled men’s club where powerful government figures play pool, drink and talk. The front half is inside the White House. And so while the presidential action plays out in the front half, the other politicians — Marshall (Richmond Hoxie), Tumulty (Michael McGrath), Wilson ally-turned-betrayer Colonel Edward House (Stephen Spinella), political foe Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (Sherman Howard) — lounge and lurk in the background.

Howard is particularly good at giving his character the kind of oily charm that feels just right for duplicitous politicians of all eras, and McGrath is convincing as the exasperated everyman caught in the middle of this mess. Alexander Dodge’s set design, Linda Cho’s costume design and Ben Stanton’s lighting design all help to establish the understated opulence in which these characters lived and worked.

DiPietro doesn’t flinch from showing how debilitated President Wilson was. As played by Glover, the character is in such agony that it’s hard to watch him. DiPietro also, though, has the character recover to an unrealistic degree at a meeting during which he needs to prove he’s not that sick, and ends with a dose of sentimentality that feels artificial.

“The Second Mrs. Wilson” will increase awareness of this remarkable chapter in our nation’s history, and that’s a good thing. But it didn’t really add up for me, either as a drama or as a slice of history.

For information, visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.

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