The last two Broadway seasons have produced a number of compelling political dramas. Brian Cranston rightfully received the 2014 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play with his powerful performance as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way. The show dealt with his efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Helen Mirren, currently starring in New York in The Audience, is mesmerizing in the play, which revolves around Queen Elizabeth’s weekly meetings with her Prime Ministers over the decades. Lin-Manuel Miranda was captivating in the Off-Broadway smash hit, Hamilton. He played one of the nation’s founding father’s, Alexander Hamilton.
Now the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven has added to the political theater canon with The Second Mrs. Wilson. The play, written by Joe DiPietro, focuses on President Woodrow Wilson’s relationship with Edith Bolling after the death of his first wife and how, after they are married and Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, she became the de facto commander in chief during his convalescence. Unfortunately, unlike the three previously mentioned New York productions, with a dominating performance by the lead actor/actress, The Second Mrs. Wilson is more diffuse and not as riveting. Margeret Colin, who plays Bolling, gives a mostly understated, yet confident performance. As the show progresses the actress transforms into a steadfast and unyielding woman. She does not waver when it comes to protecting her husband from the Washington powerbrokers that would banish her to the kitchen.
The real life story of Edith Bolling is a fascinating note in American history. Playwright DiPietro has not, however, taken the events surrounding this period of time and crafted a show with a gripping and engrossing enough central figure or interesting and compelling secondary characters. This lessens our connection to the action on stage and turns what could have been an enthralling drama into a production with too many lows and not enough highs. We are treated to a truncated history lesson that is probably unfamiliar to most people in the audience. Not only does this include the president’s liaison with the widowed Ms. Bolling, but also his obsession with forming the League of Nations. Yet, structurally, the show is a loosely connected series of vignettes, sometimes with puzzling results. For example, there is a scene where Woodrow Wilson struggles over the United States becoming involved in World War I. As a moral man he is deeply conflicted over such a cataclysmic decision. Supporting him is his wife and aides. Vilifying him is Republican Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge. How does Wilson make his final decision? We never know. One of the actors simply steps forward and lets us know the president finally relented to the constant pressure and began sending troops overseas. What could have been a strikingly dramatic moment falls flat.
John Glover, looking eerily like the 28th president, gives a satisfying performance. He is at times jaunty, taciturn and principled. He convincingly portrays an individual that has suffered a severe stroke and rebounds, to a degree, from the affliction. Nick Wyman, as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, paces and pontificates. He needed to be given more shading and nuance to become a deeper, fully developed character. The other featured players, all accomplished actors, are not as fleshed-out, which gives them a one-dimensional quality. This is unfortunate since, like the musical Hamilton demonstrated, a well-rounded supporting cast can add sizzle to a production.
Director Gordon Edelstein’s direction is perfunctory. Actors step in and out from the recesses of Alexander Dodge’s superb set design of a richly paneled and furnished anteroom. Edelstein is at his best when Colin and Glover are onstage, whether in times of gaiety or seriousness.
The Second Mrs. Wilson, at the Long Wharf Theatre through May 31st.