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Personal Politics

by James Yeara on August 8, 2012

Edith
By Kelly Masterson, directed by Michael Sexton, Berkshire Theatre Group, through Aug. 11

Soule, Gilpin and Skybell in EDITH

Having its world premiere at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge under the aegis of the Berkshire Theatre Group, Kelly Masterson’s Edith is a 21st-century history play centering on Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, second wife of the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. The two-hour Edith fascinates by alternating the personal drama of life in the White House with the larger political drama leading up to the U.S. Senate ratification vote on the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Well-staged and well-acted, Edith will thrill history lovers, and lovers of the personal story behind the headlines.

Set against the large dark green walls of the interior of the White House, Edith begins on the night of Oct. 2, 1919, when President Wilson (Jack Gilpin) has a massive stroke leaving his wife, Edith (Jayne Atkinson), the de facto president; it ends six weeks later with the aforementioned vote on the Treaty of Versailles. As the real-life First Lady did for those 42 days in the White House, Atkinson’s Edith dominates the play. At times whimsical, headstrong, manipulative, confident, fearful, dismissive, paranoid, strident and loving, Atkinson makes this almost 100-year-old history not just come alive, but feel very personal, with present-day relevance.

Masterson’s weaving of the taught timeline from Wilson’s stroke to the vote is handled smartly by director Michael Sexton. He makes effective use of the set to swiftly stage the 60 scenes of Edith, shifting the green walls to form the corridors of power, the Oval Office, a golf course, and even a ballpark hosting the World Series. In non-linear fashion, Edith brings to life the events of those 42 days, plus the back story of widower Edith Galt meeting (and being wooed by) the recently widowed President Wilson.

Sexton’s eight-actor cast create characters who react nimbly to the time shifts: from the “present” of the stroke, to the past of Edith and Woodrow’s meeting; to juggling the concerns and crises as they maneuver toward the ratification vote; and to the couple’s initial wooing, and Woodrow’s three separate proposals made at three separate sporting events. (This last is one of the many clever domestic touches in Masterson’s script). And there is some satisfying political chicanery associated with hiding Wilson’s condition from his nemesis, an assured and oily Sen, Henry Cabot Lodge (a magnificent Walter Hudson).

Weaving the historical and personal events of Edith Galt Wilson’s 42 days in command of the White House in chronological fashion would have been as riveting as social studies PowerPoint presentation; Masterson’s play tasks Sexton’s direction so that the whirling set, like a theatrical Rubik’s Cube, and the shifting actors—when and where are they? Is the leap back justified by what was created in the present, and is the present informed by back story just revealed?—always holds the audience’s attention.

Dan Butler creates a three-dimensional figure in the thankless role as Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s vice-president; Edith Wilson repeatedly worries that “you’ll make that imbecile president,” while Senator Lodge wheedles “let me take the ‘vice’ out of your title.” Marshall’s response, “you cannot claim the president is not the president just because you don’t agree with him,” earned ironic affirmation from the audience.

Steven Skybell’s Dr. Cary Grayson, Wilson’s personal physician, is masterful juggling the demands of caring for his patients and the political insistence of Edith Wilson: “this is a medical decision and I make the medical decisions,” he yells to Mrs. Wilson, who witheringly responds, “You used to be his friend.”

Together Samantha Soule as Wilson’s feisty eldest daughter, Margaret, and R.J. Hatanaka as Wilson’s personal Secret Service agent, Edmund Starling, create a coy and charming relationship that hints at a romance the situation smothers. “She wants me gone—she wants to be queen of America,” Margaret cries to Edmund. Such is the power of Edith to engage an audience with history that I had to check on the story of Margaret Woodrow Wilson; she deserves a play all her own.

Artistic director Kate Maguire welcomed Edith’s audience with, “this is the first of three world premieres here, because we believe in the future of American theatre.” If the past is prologue to the future, Edith is an auspicious start.

 

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