Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Like any good comedy Soldier's Wife has its serious undertones and its enduring charm owes more to its poignancy than comedic one liners which have a way of aging poorly. And so, what we have is a poignant and thoughtful look at women forced by war to tap into heretofore unnecessary resourcefulness and how neither these more independent wives or their returning soldier husbands could expect to go back to their pre-war, marital relationship without adjustments. This situation, with which 1944 audiences could easily identify, was given the additional dramatic twist of having John Rogers' (Michael Polak) return coincide with his wife Katherine's (Angela Pierce) sudden literary celebrity.
As Franken herself began writing short stories mostly for her own and her physician husband's amusement, so Katherine (generally called Kate) in Soldier's Wife wrote letters to her warrior husband to boost his spirit and to keep the flame of their love alive. And as Franken's husband encouraged her fledgling writing, John finds Katherine's letters so enjoyable and uplifting that he shares them with his dying buddy and, after that friend's death, sent them to his father who happened to be a publisher. Thus the stay-at-home, proud to be called "Mrs. John Rogers" Katherine's career is launched by John who is a typically traditional husband, the family breadwinner and the one to rely on to fix broken appliances and other "male" chores.
Following the well made play structure the kitchen sink realism takes the various plot complications to a definitive finale. This being a comedy, that calls for an upbeat ending and even provides satisfying hints of good things to come for the chief subsidiary characters -- Katherine's devoted older sister Florence (Judith Hawking) and a snobbish journalist (Jordan Lage). Typical of comedies and movies of the era, both the journalist and his editor and ex-wife (Kate Levy) find the veneer peeling off their sophisticated facade as they become exposed to the more ordinary lives of Katherine, John and Florence. It's the authenticity of this love and family focused trio that also imbued Katherine's letters with a genuine warmth recognized by the publisher as having universal appeal.
Even though there are no set changes, director Eleanor Reissa lets the story unfold at a leisurely pace, without conflating two of the three acts to eliminate one of the two intermissions. The setting is the Rogers' Manhattan apartment (in a section along Riverside Drive once affordable for middle-class families). The time covered is from late Summer to early Fall, and each act has its own beginning, middle and end arc.
The excitement at the beginning of act one is that the long absent soldier will return to his wife and the baby he's never seen. By the end of that act, a few surprises have cast some potential clouds over the Rogers' reunion: John realizes that both Katherine and her devoted and considerably older sister have bravely sheltered him from their own battle scars; it seems that Katherine almost died in childbirth and that, while John has survived the dangers of the battlefield, his brother-in-law has not. The happier climactic event-- the news that Katherine's letters will be published as a book -- is bound to lead to a good news/bad news scenario. Thanks to the sincere and fully committed performances of Pierce, Polak and Hawking, we also become attached to their characters. If Ms. Reissa allows Pierce's Kate to be a bit too gushy at times, this actually works to emphasize the audience's and her husband's realization that there's a strong woman beneath this girlish exterior.
Having been a book publishing agent for many years it struck me as a bit of a stretch that Katherine's book would have been published in three rather than the more usual nine months. However, let's chalk this up to an author's prerogative, especially since the characters otherwise represent the attitudes of their era quite accurately -- a fact well supported by this production's designers, with costumer Clint Ramos deserving a special hurrah for the outfits that seem to have walked right off the hangers in a 1940s closet.
The two nonfamily members who show up as a result of Katherine's letters being published as a book titled (what else?) Soldier's Wife are the super chic woman editor named Peter Gray (a name indicating that career women in those days had to be tough as men) and Alexander Craig, the blasé playwright and occasional celebrity interviewer. Compared to Katherine, John and Florence they may seem a bit over the top but they are true to many a real and 30s and 40's movie prototypes. Kate Levy plays Peter with an Eve Arden/Rosalind Russell brio. Jordan Lage portrays Craig with amusing raised eyebrow superiority, but not to the point where his shift from his self-deprecating irony and dismissive attitude towards Katherine's book (he's interviewing her but hasn't bothered to read her book), fails to make his shift to a more wistful mood convincing.
Having seen this and the revival of Neil Simon's much better known domestic comedy, Barefoot in the Park, within days of each other, it's hard not to compare these two productions. (Our review of the Broadway reviaval here). While Simon's jokey comedy landed with something of a thud, Soldier's Wife once again showcases the Mint's ability to retrieve neglected plays with their best qualities intact.
If you go to see Soldier's Wife, and I recommend that you do, be sure to read the touching and informative essay by the playwright's granddaughter that's included in the program notes. Jessica Franken's loving memories of her grandmother show a woman for whom marriage and children always came first but who nevertheless managed to lead rich creative lives. When necessary they used their skills to support their families. Franken was a successful director as well as a playwright, and what started as a lark became necessity when her first husband died. Her second marriage was a professional and well as personal partnership. No wonder that to Jessica Franken and her sisters a pre-feminist era achiever like their grandmother has been an inspiration.
Happily the Mint is continuing its focus on American Women Playwrights. Rachel Crothers is next in line with Susan and God. It will be helmed by Jonathan Banks, the Mint's champion in chief of talented women playwrights specifically and neglected theatrical treasures in general.
The Internet Theatre Bookshop "Virtually Every Play in the World" --even out of print plays
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.