Joe DiPietro’s lastest play is truly a gift to theater. For those who love historical fiction, his new play “The Second Mrs. Wilson”—at George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, through November 29—brings history to life, and considering it’s a bit of New Jersey history as well as national history, there’s a lot to love about the story of Edith Wilson running the country after Woodrow’s quasi un-publicized stroke. While many are still debating Hillary Clinton’s qualifications to run the country, Edith Wilson is arguably the first woman to at least act as Commander in Chief, as she determined which of the matters presented to her daily during President Wilson’s recuperation required the President’s attention.
This is an all-star cast headed by Laila Robins as Edith Wilson and John Glover as President Wilson. Their chemistry is immediate and you can see how Woodrow’s acetylene energy, the energy that enervates him and causes migraines, is soothed by Edith’s gentle touch. Her deft way with words wins him over as well and he’s as smitten as a school boy. Wilson crossing swords with Henry Cabot Lodge (Sherman Howard), who expounds as if to the pulpit born, is truly something to behold. Second only are these moments, too, when Edith’s words give Henry pause in the second act.
New Jersey was Wilson’s home when he was first President of Princeton University and later New Jersey Governor. Consequently, when perusing the character list and one sees a name like “Joe Tumulty” (Michael McGrath), whose name is on a favorite local pub a block or so away, the Jersey connection is crystal clear. Tumulty was a loyal Wilson advocate, who was one of the few who shared the secret of the second Mrs. Wilson, as she struggled to bring her husband’s vision of peace to fruition.
Glover’s portrayal of the harbingers of the President’s malady are subtle at first, but just as they would get stronger in real life, so did we have an idea of what was to come. The masterful performance depicting the suffering and frustration of a genuine stroke victim is part of Glover’s genius. Anyone who’s had someone in their family experience something similar will be wiping a tear or two, as I did, as it was so true, so real.
Robins’ gifts, so apparent in her Edith, are showing the genuine love this woman has for her husband, and her commitment to assuring his vision’s best opportunity for success. This is a backstage view of the White House at a critical moment, a progenitor of our hunger for “West Wing” and “House of Cards,” and the best encouragement ever to know more about our own history. Quite often, “new” legislation is borrowed from old and if we don’t learn from history, our recursive loop goes on.
This makes a great early Holiday gift, but the show only runs through November 29, so get a wiggle on! Visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org