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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
The tour-de-force role is that of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson's second wife often dubbed "The Secret President" because for six tension-filled weeks in 1919 after Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke she served as his voice and fiercely fought those who felt he was in no state to serve out his presidency. Though Atkinson is the titular character and star, Kelly Masterson's Edith isn't a solo play, but includes seven other meaty roles. All are well cast in the stylishly staged world premiere currently at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage
Masterson has clearly done his homework, reading up on the Wilsons and the post World War I period when Wilson, at the apogee of his popularity, secured the adoption of th Covenant of the League of Nations, but was felled by the stroke caused by the stress of trying to get Congress to accept it. However, he's used his prerogative as a playwright to imagine or "factionalize" his behind the scenes dramatization of the crisis of a government temporarily without a president.
The factional aspects of the play work well because knowing what was in these characters' hearts and minds is always pretty much a guessing game. Thus it doesn't really alter the play's authentic feel that details of the Woodrow-Edith courtship are as envisioned by Masterson, as is his portrayal of Edith's relationship with Wilson's daughter Margaret. It's certainly possible that Margaret, who had acted as First Lady after her mother's death, felt displaced and rsentful at her father's remarriage so early into his widowerhood.
The playwright's screenplay writing experience is reflected in the play's being propelled forward and backward throughout fifty fast-paced scenes. These shifts in time — the present ranging from Wilson's stroke through the ensuing six weeks segueing back to Woodrow and Edith meeting, marriage and the happier times, like the triumphant visit to Versailles.
Director Michael Sexton' and Scenic Designer Brett J. Banakis have managed to let the shifts in time and place to unfurl with terrific fluidity. In a big Broadway theater, the various settings might call for a turntable set, this wouldn't work in this venue's rather shallow stage even if economically feasible. However, Sexton and Banakis have managed to take us from scene to scene with the help a few highly efficient prop movers (dressed in costume so that they blend in) and a White House hallway with a break that effectively slides ope and shut to reset the location.
Those sliding doors and manually moved props evoke the multiple scene changes evoke the location abstractly rather than with a lot of realistic details. Thus the scenes of Edith and Woodrow's happier days, like their rides in her Pierce Arrow car and in a motorcade during her trip abroad for the signing of the Treaty of Versailes, play out on chairs, shades of some of Thornton Wilder's T he Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.
Ms. Atkinson's has played plenty of interesting women, including Candida at this theater, but Edith tops them all. No matter that she's older than Edith was when she married Wilson and virtually became the shadow president during his illness. She IS Edith: A strong, independent woman way ahead of her time who when we first meet her is a well-to-do widow running her husband's jewelry business. She not only drives her own car but likes to do so at maximum speed (It's when she comes to take Margaret Wilson for a ride, that she meets Wilson and intrigues him enough for him to take time out from his duties to join them).
When she loves, this Edith does so passionately and with unswerving devotion that makes her unfazed by powerful men like Henry Cabot Lodge. Atkinson seamlessly transitions from the funny and witty widow with whom the Wilson (and we) falls in love to the ecstatically happy First Lady, to the fiercely protective caretaker of his power and influence. Though not intersted in politics before marrying the President, she turned out to be a savvy politician.
Fortunately, Atkinson's colleagues on stage are also very fine. Jack Gilpin gives an emotionally convincing performance as the happily smitten and sadly stricken President. Berkshire regular Walter Hudson is impressively odious as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who's as determined to defeat the acceptance of the anti-League of Nations and make Edith stop acting as if she were in charge. If a crossword puzzle called for the name of Woodrow Wilson's vice-president, most of us would be stumped, but Dan Butler plays Thomas Marshall with comic finesse.
As loyalists to Edith's determined "coverup" Peter Rini is excellent as Wilson's conflicted friend and adviser. Joseph Tumulty. An actress I've admired many times on and off Broadway, makes the most of her relatively little stage time as Wilson's daughter Margaret (she was th oldest of three). Not to be overlooked are RJ Hatanaka as another conflicted Wilson loyalist, Secret Service agent Edmund Starling and Steven Skybell as Dr. Cary Grayson, who must make harrowing decisions about Wilson's care and revelations about it.
My praises for this production's stagecraft would not be complete without a round of applause for David Murin's smashing and period perfect costumes and Paul Gallo and Craig Stelzenmuller's lighting and Jill BC DuBoff's lighting.
Woodrow Wilson's vision of an international peace keeping organization did eventually materialize as the United Nations which has kept the world from erupting into major wars, though as yet hasn't made all wars obsolete. Tlhis is the first of three Berkshire Theatre Group world premires. Here's hoping that Homestead Crossing and Brace Yourself will be as interesting and enjoyable as Edith.
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