The First Female President? | George Street Presents “The Second Mrs. Wilson”
As the candidates move forward through this presidential campaign, many people are watching Hillary Clinton closely to see if she can become the first female president in U.S. history. Others wonder if she will become the second.
Some historians consider Edith Wilson—wife of Woodrow Wilson, the former Governor of New Jersey and 28th President of the United States—as the first female president. History isn’t clear about the full extent of the role that Edith Wilson played, but depending on who you talk to, she was either the gatekeeper (watching out for who had access to the President) or the person actually running the country after her husband suffered a stroke.
This all took place during a period of time in which America was debating entering World War I and Woodrow Wilson was trying to create the League of Nations. Wilson met Edith Galt while still grieving the loss of his first wife. The two married and she quickly became an influential member of his inner circle of advisors.
Playwright Joe DiPietro takes a look at this unique time in American history in the play, “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” being presented by George Street Playhouse in November.
DiPietro, a native of Bergen County, wrote the Tony Award-winning musical “Memphis” along with fellow Garden State native, David Bryan (best known as the keyboardist for Bon Jovi). DiPietro began seeing shows at George Street Playhouse as a Rutgers student in the ‘80s. When he was looking for a theater to present “The Toxic Avenger,” he reached out to them.
“I had written that show with David Bryan, who I wrote ‘Memphis’ with,” recalled DiPietro. “We’re two Jersey boys. The producer asked, ‘What should we do with this?’ because we wrote the play rather quickly. I said I’ve always wanted to work at George Street Playhouse and I’m from Jersey, the show is full of Jersey jokes, if anyone is going to like it, it’s a Jersey audience. So, David Saint (Artistic Director at George Street Playhouse) read it and we did a reading, and he said he wanted to produce it. That began my relationship with George Street Playhouse.”
This will be the fifth show by DiPietro to be staged by George Street Playhouse. Following “The Toxic Avenger” came productions of “Creating Claire,” “Clever Little Lies” and “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.” “The Second Mrs. Wilson” has a wonderful cast that includes Tony Award-winners John Glover (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”), Michael McGrath (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”), and Stephen Spinella (“Angels In America”) along with Richmond Hoxie, Sherman Howard, Laila Robins and Stephen Barker Turner. The production is directed by Gordon Edelstein.
DiPietro admits to being a bit of a political junkie. He says the inspiration behind the play came from reading an article about female politicians a few years ago.
“It said many people believe that Hillary Clinton may be our first female president, and then in parenthesis it said, ‘Of course, many people believe Edith Wilson was already our first female president.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ I knew a little about Woodrow Wilson, but not a whole lot so I immediately went back and did a little research. I became fascinated by the story of Edith and Woodrow.
“It is a stunningly dramatic story and it’s still a shocking incident in American history,” continued DiPietro. “Amazingly, it’s not widely known. One of the reasons I was so intrigued is my dramatist antenna went up and said, ‘This is an unbelievable story about a woman that is essentially running the country at a time when women couldn’t even vote!’”
“The Second Mrs. Wilson” had its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven last May. Glover, who portrayed Woodrow Wilson in that production, said that he returned to the role because “it’s such a good play and a good part.” He also noted that, “The play is changing because Joe is here rewriting. It’s getting better and deeper and deeper.”
When it was first brought to him, Glover worried that the play would be a boring story about politics, but he found it to be a real page turner with more emphasis on relationships than politics. “It is about the humanness of Wilson and a bunch of people who were in this extraordinary time trying to achieve something.”
“Scott Berg wrote a great biography of Wilson in 2013,” continued Glover. “A lot of historians disliked him and a lot of historians thought he was a savior that changed the world. There are many different feelings about him, but Scott Berg looked into his heart. He justifies a lot of it, which is great for an actor who is going to play that part, because of his belief in himself and being put into situations by God.”
Wilson’s wife, Edith, is played by Laila Robins, a familiar face to New Jersey audiences. A long-time member of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, Robins has also acted at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. She says she loves the challenge of portraying Edith as she moves from someone who knows virtually nothing about politics to one of the most important people in the world.
“I’m approaching the role more from watching somebody go from political naiveté to becoming more or less in charge,” explained Robins. “I feel my job is to show you the journey of that in incremental actions. Joe DiPietro has articulated that journey so clearly. In every scene you can see what she learns, why she learns it and what she does with what she learns. It’s beautifully calibrated that way.”
“It was a period of American history, which is 100 years old now,” said DiPietro. “The Great War, as it was called, is vitally important and we were basically an isolationist country. Woodrow Wilson took us into the modern power we are now, so his presidency is still vastly influential. I was trying to tell as much of that history, while making sure it was understandable and not glib against the backdrop of his great romance. What fascinated me about the story was how the personal affects the political. How Woodrow Wilson may have been the most powerful person in the world, but he was still a human being. He was grieving and he fell in love with a strong-willed woman and those two personalities controlled world events.”
“The Second Mrs. Wilson” is presented at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, November 10-29. For more information, visit http://www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.