Edith by Kelly Masterson. Directed by Michael Sexton.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jack Gilpin and Jayne Atkinson in rehearsal (no production shots available)
"A woman who understands the true meaning of peace."
"Queen of America," was her nickname: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, wife of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. She was, seemingly, acting as President for a period of time while her husband suffered, and recovered from, a stroke. It was her loyalty to him and his goal for world peace through a League of Nations that spurred her on, although there may have been a feminist urging in operation as well, the surge and need for power and control and the political history behind a woman’s presidency. Of course, it is hard to know, nearly a century later, what mental processes were in play at the time. Playwright Kelly Masterson, with his new play "Edith" having its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge Festival Main Stage, leaves us wondering about her deepest motives while he celebrates her strengths.
This is a play with grand language and larger-than-life characters and a physical production that matches both the history of the time and the people who inhabited it. Director Michael Sexton has created a world in which 54 scenes blend seamlessly, in cinematic scope and urgency, to provide the history of those six intense weeks in Wilson’s life while also providing glimpses into the back story, the history of a relationship and a marriage.
The Berkshire audiences who come to this play will be treated to one of the finest performances seen on local stages in a very long while. Jayne Atkinson takes Edith Wilson on, like a tight-fitting Batwoman costume, and it is Edith who emerges through this transformation. Every gesture, every glare or stare or wink or smile or smirk belongs to Edith. Her voice, so reminiscent of Jayne Atkinson’s voice, has a tone and timbre that belongs to another time. She is as close to the young Judith Anderson as anyone may ever come and in being perceived as such she has lost herself in the close-fit of character. The result of this magical actor’s skill is a full-blooded living Edith Wilson who never suffers a misstep or out of character moment.
Standing, sitting or lying by her side is Jack Gilpin, always a reliable actor, who seems to have caught the flame of replication from his co-star for he too seems to have gone beyond representation into the world of translation. Pre-stroke he has a delicious charm and post-stroke he is a deeply sympathetic man. At one point, understanding that his goals may be compromised he reaches out to Edith, calls to her in a voice that has never been Gilpin’s voice and pulls out empathetic tears from his audience.
A remarkable cast encompasses these two players. Dan Butler is both brilliantly comic and seriously sad as vice-president Thomas Marshall who is pulled in too many directions by too many factions. Walter Hudson plays Henry Cabot Lodge with a deviousness that even shows in his feline gestures and walk.
Peter Rini turns Presidential advisor Joseph Tumulty into a deeply troubled soul whose decisions are so long-term-affecting that any time he expresses one it is clear in his voice that the choice is a pop-up and may not be his first choice at all. Samantha Soule makes Wilson’s daughter (one of three actually) into a woman whose loving concern may have deeper meaning than may be expressed.
Secret Service agent Edmund Starling is movingly played by RJ Hatanaka. His scenes with the first lady are especially chilling as he appears with her from the opening moment in the play almost through the final scene. Steven Skybell’s Dr. Cary Grayson is the personification of strength under torture. Maintaining a calm demeanor and professional manner, he manages to show us what lies beneath in more than one instance.
Almost as important an element as any of the above is the incredible physical set that encloses this play on the Stockbridge stage. Designed by Brett J. Banakis, it is never anything but a stage set, a long, green hallway with obvious breaks in its walls. You know from the first moment that it will move and reveal another layer of set at some point. However, the surprise comes in its transporting the viewer to so many different locations with such an incredible, choreographic elegance. Think about Washington, DC in this, or any other, time. Consider being there and being a literal fly on the wall, the one everyone speaks of when talking about learning secrets. Banakis has made the latter a reality for the audience while practically tearing down one space to move us into another. I would see the show again, if not for the performances and the writing, just to watch the set changes. This is brilliant theater.
David Murin’s costumes are superbly crafted and provide a means for moving backward and forward in time quickly and efficiently. His Paris parade costume for Edith is particularly memorable.
Paul Gallo and Craig Stelzenmuller have designed a complex lighting plot that focuses our attention where it is needed and away from the technical alterations happening elsewhere. Jill BC DuBoff has added sound and music and has aided the production immensely with her skill and her taste. Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas have provided the right look in wigs.
I am ordinarily drawn back to the best in musicals and this has been a season in the Berkshires with some fabulous shows. This, however, is the PLAY I’d choose for a second viewing for all of the elements here are perfect and fascinating and beg a second chance to impress again.
Edith plays at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge Festival Main Stage through August 11. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576 or go on line at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.