Unconstitutional Powers at George Street: “The Second Mrs. Wilson”

The Second Mrs. Wilson GSP 11-15 092

George Street Playhouse’s de facto resident writer, the prolific Joe DiPietro, has shown a quirky imagination in his past efforts such as “The Toxic Avenger” and “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” but nothing in either of those two musicals would remotely prepare a theatergoer for his latest, more refined, and definitely more conventionally dramatic work, now running in New Brunswick through November 29.

“The Second Mrs. Wilson,” which had its premiere at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven last May, is the type of play that’s rarely written any longer: a political drama – part history, part speculation – in well-made play form, with a gripping, straight-forward narrative and no attempt at profundity.

DiPietro focuses on Woodrow Wilson’s second marriage, to Edith Galt, and on the control of Presidential affairs that Edith unofficially assumed after Wilson had a debilitating stroke in 1919 as he was attempting to gain support for his League of Nations proposal against conservative opposition. Whether Edith made decisions on his behalf, or merely served as a conduit and filter, remains a matter of debate, a fine line that DiPietro straddles. What’s clear is that she was loyal to Wilson in refusing to entertain any concessions that would have allowed it gain enough Congressional votes to be approved. If DiPietro poses any question, it’s whether defeat is preferable to compromise.

The political implications of this question reverberate today, and fortunately it’s the politics that the play emphasizes rather than what is opportunistically suggested by George Street’s promotional catch phrase about “the first female President” that is DiPietro’s priority. He succumbs to some redundancy and a bit of melodrama in the second act, but otherwise his compelling dialogue and intriguing characters keep the audience fully engaged.

Two of the finest performances in recent memory are given by Laila Robins and John Glover as the Wilsons, and Gordon Edelstein’s production is what once would have been called “Broadway caliber.” But, sadly, there may not be a place on Broadway for this genre of play anymore. At least there is in New Brunswick.

The Second Mrs. Wilson, runs through November 29, at the George Street Playhouse.

Photo: Laila Robins and John Glover in “The Second Mrs. Wilson.”

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