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A CurtainUp Review
Soldier's Wife

I know what this place seems like to you -- it's dreary and commonplace. And people who love each other aren't interesting. And a happy marriage with children adds up to a very little story against the glittering kind of life you lead. It's so easy to pull things down-- if you don't know what it's all about. --- Kate
You're right. I don't know what it's all about. The nearest thing I'll ever get to a baby is the Stork Club -- Craig, the sophisticated writer who has put his own spin on his interview with Kate, and whom she has shamed into an appreciation of the genuineness of this young woman whose letters to her soldier husband catapulted her into an unanticipated literary career

Michael Polak & Angela Pierce
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Since its 253-performance run during the 1944-45 Broadway season, Rose Franken's Soldier's Wife has faded into the mist. Even Franken's once wildly popular Claudia stories that served as the basis of an even longer running Broadway play as well as a subsequent movie, have been relegated to the dustbin. So, once again, a bravo to Jonathan Bank and his Mint Theater for taking us back to the World War II era with performances that go beneath its characters' surfaces and a handsome production to give this domestic comedy a vivid new life.

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.


Playwright: Rose Franken
Directed by Eleanor Reissa
Cast: Judith Hawking, Jordan Lage, Kate Levy, Angela Pierce, and Michael Polak.
Set Design: Nathan Heverin.
Costume Design: Clint . Ramos
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Elizabeth Rhodes

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes 2 intermissions
Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd floor (212) 315-0231
From 2/07/06 to 4/02/06; opening 2/23/06
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM.
Tickets: $35 during previews; $45 thereafter.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on Feb.16th press preview
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