One thing about Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the second wife of our nation’s 28th president: She never shirked a task or ran away from responsibility.
When Woodrow Wilson collapsed on Sept. 25, 1919, and then had a serious stroke the following week, it was Edith who became the de facto president, determining who would or wouldn’t see her husband, and what legislation would be presented to him and what wouldn’t.
Dubbed “the First Female President” and “the Secret President,” Edith kept the seriousness of the her husband’s condition out of the public eye, and also kept alive Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations.
Her “assumption” to the presidency has often drawn criticism from various historians, and it is that key six-week stretch during Wilson’s second term that is the focus of Kelly Masterson’s world premiere play, “Edith,” starring Jayne Atkinson, at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Mass.
WHERE: Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 East Main St., Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Previews 8 p.m. tonight and Friday, opens 2 p.m. Saturday; other performance times are 8 p.m. Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Aug. 9-10 and 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 11.
HOW MUCH: $57-$37
MORE INFO: (413) 997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
Presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group, “Edith” began as a work in the Berkshire Playwrights Lab in June of 2011, and Atkinson was a part of the project right from the beginning.
“This play comes at a time just after the Treaty of Versailles and as Wilson was traveling the country pushing the League of Nations,” said Atkinson, a Tony-nominated stage actress with also quite an impressive television and film resume.
“He pushed himself so hard he had a stroke, and she was faced with the prospect of keeping her husband alive, and keeping the League of Nations alive. The important question this play poses is did they become one in the same.”
Wilson slowly recuperated from his stroke and lived through the completion of his second term in 1921. But he did die just three years later at the age of 67, an unpopular ex-president whose great legacy was supposed to have included the League of Nations. Those aspirations, however, also died as Americans, after experiencing World War I, were looking for leaders interested more in the policy of isolationism.
“What I hope people come away from the play with are the nuances and complexities of Wilson’s failure,” said Atkinson.
“He wanted the world to all get along and play nice together, so that maybe we could avoid another horrible conflict. But most other Americans were thinking the other way. They didn’t want to commit to protecting all these other countries, and didn’t want our resources used that way. This play is pertinent because we’re still there. We’re still dealing with those kinds of decisions.”
The actors joining Atkinson on stage include Jack Gilpin as Woodrow Wilson, Dan Butler as vice-president Thomas Marshall and Steve Skybell as Wilson’s physician, Dr. Cary Grayson.
“This play is a tour de force for an actress,” said Atkinson. “Kelly wrote it to show the power of the office and the first lady, and all the machinations, responsibilities and pitfalls that go along with that power. I love that [Masterson] wrote this play through Edith and the situation she faced. I didn’t know that much about Edith, and didn’t understand the impact she made on the role of the first lady. I didn’t know that much about that moment in history.”
Masterson, a former seminarian who left school just short of ordination, has been writing for both stage and screen for 25 years. He had a big off-Broadway success with “Touch” in 1987, and in 2007 he wrote the screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Atkinson, who was born in Great Britain and moved to the U.S. with her parents before her second birthday, had her first big stage success in 1987, landing a role in the Broadway revival of “All My Sons.” She earned Tony nominations for both “The Rainmaker” in 1999 and “Enchanted April” in 2003, and her movie credits include 1993’s “Free Willy,” 2004’s “The Village,” and 2005’s “Syriana.”
Also a busy television actress, she has had recurring roles in “Criminal Minds,” “24” and “Gossip Girls,” to go along with numerous guest-starring appearances.
“I was always on the acting track, and I think in comparison to others I had a pretty quick path,” said Atkinson, who graduated from Northwestern University in 1981 with a degree in communications before heading to Yale Drama School for her master’s.
“There were a few turns in the road. I had a son because I also wanted to have that life along with the life of an actor. For me, family is very important. My husband is also an actor, and it’s very important for us to have a life besides acting. Perhaps the ease with which I was able to get work allowed me the luxury of having all those things. It was challenging, but I always wanted a life outside of the acting world.”
Atkinson, who spent much of her younger days in Hollywood, Fla., headed from Yale to New York City to begin her acting career. She and her husband, Michel Gill, have a son, Jeremy, and recently relocated to Great Barrington, Mass., where they have taught scene study at Berkshire Theatre Festival as well as master classes at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and the Actor’s Connection in New York.
“I am very happy to be living and working in the Berkshires,” she said. “It’s been great to have Kelly here working on his script with us, and seeing exactly what he wants out of us. We’re still in the exploratory stage right now, but anytime you do a piece like this you can’t help but have your sights set on New York. We have to see if it looks good off the page and then fly it up the flagpole and see if it’s got legs.”
Atkinson, who was most recently on Broadway in 2009 with Angela Lansbury and Christine Ebersole in “Blithe Spirit,” said the stage is her first love.
“In a perfect world I’d do it all, because I’ve had some great roles on television and in films, too,” she said. “But I love the museum of theater. It really is unfettered and so free of tampering. You create this wonderful experience with the audience, and there is nothing like it.”