Thursday August 9, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Presi dent Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, died in 1961 at the age of 89, outliving her husband by 37 years.

She is very much alive and well these days, however, in an exhilarating new play, "Edith," which is being given a flawlessly acted world premiere at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage.

As portrayed by Jayne Atkinson, she is more than alive and well. She is an unyielding force of nature. She has to be. In the fall of 1919, shortly after returning to the United States after signing the Treaty of Versailles in France, Wilson suffered a stroke, which completely incapacitated him for an intense six-week period and from which he never fully recovered over the remaining 17 months of his presidency. In those six weeks, Edith, in a desperate effort to protect her husband and his presidency, in effect took over the reigns of power, making decisions in her husband's name, keeping the truth of his condition from his archest political enemies, devoted supporters, even his beloved daughter, Margaret; bringing the country to the brink of an unprecedented constitutional crisis in the process.

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The stakes couldn't have been higher. Ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson had just signed in France, and with it U.S. membership in the League of Nations, was facing stiff opposition by the Senate Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, who was bitterly disdainful of Wilson's diplomatic idealism.


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Lodge's antipathy focused on the treaty's Article X, which required all nations, including the United States, to respect and preserve the territorial integrity of member states. Lodge feared the clause would draw the United States into far-flung military interventions in which the country had no interests, direct or indirect.

The fight over ratification of the treaty forms the framework for "Edith." It is a riveting story grippingly told as Lodge and the physically damaged Wilson head for an inevitable face-to-face showdown. But "Edith" is not simply a story about two major political figures having at it over deeply held beliefs. At its heart, "Edith" is a love story -- love of country, certainly, and the ways in which that love is defined and articulated. More profoundly, however, "Edith" is about the love between two people who complement one another emotionally and intellectually -- Wood row Wilson (played by Jack Gilpin with a keen intellect, passionate conviction, a genuine boyish ingenuousness, which is both Wilson's strength and weakness, and a delightfully rich, understated wit); and his wife, played with robust energy and fierce determination by Atkinson.

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"Edith" adroitly chronicles the political battle and its ripple effects; Edith's strained relationship with her adult stepdaughter, Margaret (a luminous Samantha Soule); and especially the courtship between Woodrow and Edith that illustrates vividly the unshakeable bond between these two.

Masterson doesn't stint on his development of the subsidiary characters and director Michael Sexton has assembled an ensemble of uniformly first-rate actors who serve these characters extremely well -- in addition to the aforementioned Soule, Peter Rini as Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's shrewd Chief of Staff; Walter Hudson as the wily, manipulative Lodge; RJ Hanaka as a devoted Secret Service agent; Steven Skybell as Wilson's trusted physician; and Dan Butler as the pathetic vice president, Thomas Marshall, who is caught among Lodge, Wilson and
his own apathy toward his position.

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"Edith" not only depicts a Washington climate in which the political divide was the product of deeply held conviction and principles rather than vindictiveness and spite, it reminds us of theater's ability to, at once, engage the mind while catching the heart and to do it with intelligence, wit and compassion. How refreshing!