nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 21, 2006
Rose Franken's play Soldier's Wife is a pristine time capsule from another era, offering a glimpse onto a world that feels very different from our own. In Eleanor Reissa's thoughtful staging at the Mint Theater Company, it's at once an engaging entertainment and a fasincating and unique opportunity to look back at our not-so-distant shared past with a little bit of hindsight and a little bit of wonder.
It's late summer, 1944, in a (not so fashionable) West Side apartment in Manhattan. Kate Rogers is putting the finishing touches on a barely plausible repaint job on a stepladder; her nine-month old baby boy is asleep in the other room. War news is all that seems to be on the radio.
Kate's older sister Florence arrives, with some news of her own: Kate's husband John is back from his tour of duty overseas. And indeed, moments later John arrives, having been wounded on a mission in the South Pacific and requiring at least several weeks recuperation time stateside.
John has news, too. His best buddy, a fellow named Steve Martin, wound up in the next bed at the military hospital where both were treated. Steve was a lot worse off than John (and in fact died in the hospital); one of the things that gave him some pleasure, though, was reading the letters that Kate wrote to John. He thought so much of them that he mentioned them to his father, a prominent publisher. And so now it looks like Kate's letters are about to be in print.
Act Two begins with Kate celebrating the impending publication of her book, "Soldier's Wife," by blowing a good deal of her $500 advance on a shopping spree: a new dress (reduced from $79 to $22.50); a slightly damaged used humidor for John; bold floral slipcovers for, well, every bit of furniture in sight. But life looks like it's about to change: a gentleman named Alexander Craig is expected at 4:30 this afternoon, to interview Kate for the ladies' section of the newspaper. On his heels, surprisingly, is Peter Gray, who turns out to be a woman and is Craig's editor. She's found out that Kate's book is about to be a sensation, and she smells a story that she wants to be sure Craig sniffs out; she also wastes no time suggesting herself as literary agent to Kate, who is about to be offered a five-figure deal by a major movie studio.
This being 1944, the issue is not whether Kate will sell out and change her lifestyle to match her new-found celebrity (she won't), but whether John will be able to deal with the fact that his wife is earning so much more money than him. A thing that surprised me about Soldier's Wife was that the deep contrasts between the super-sophisticates Craig and Gray on the one hand and the folksy Rogerses on the other, which seem to be the main thrust of the play's second act, are virtually forgotten in the third: Peter is dismissed, more or less, as a self-evidently unfulfilled woman, while Craig is given a chance to prove his muster when a "real" crisis comes along.
I don't mean in that last sentence to sound superior or cynical, mind you: the other thing that surprised me about this play (though perhaps it shouldn't have) was how simple the world it portrays seems to be. Men and women know their "places" and, though the war has temporarily disturbed the balance, they're eager to set things right. More to the point, moral clarity is everywhere. No one wonders whether the war is just or necessary—everyone understands its importance even if they're weary of it. (Craig even calls himself a "yellow bastard" for not having enlisted.)
Is there value in spending quality time in a period and place where life was so different from our own? Absolutely—the reason we need theatres like the Mint to teach us about our past is so that we can see where we've been, to better understand how we got to where we are. Reflecting such divergent attitudes toward gender roles, sacrifice, and public service, Soldier's Wife is a valuable bit of social history, beautifully preserved.
It's also beautifully presented, with a first-rate cast bringing Franken's characters to life vividly and humanely. Michael Polak is wonderfully measured and instantly likable as John, while Angela Pierce is a lively, delightful Kate. Kate Levy strikes the right notes as worldly Peter Gray. Jordan Lage is terrific as Alexander Craig, telegraphing his type to us as soon as we see him hand his hat and coat to Judith Hawking's pitch-perfect Florence. And Hawking is splendid, evoking the period with each detail of her well-crafted performance.
Burns Mantle, writing about the original production of Soldier's Wife in 1945, noted that Franken was among the first to consider what would become a significant social issue of her day—the ways that families would cope with men being away for a long time and women taking their places as wage-earners. If the play's resolution of this dilemma feels a bit pat, it's nevertheless surprisingly satisfying. We can't get back to the time depicted here (and probably wouldn't want to, even if we could). But there's something ineffably comforting about the values, outmoded and otherwise, that pervade this piece and the simpler, more innocent era it represents.