"How much longer is it going to last?" asks the frightened title character in Rose Franken's Soldier's Wife
after listening to radio reports of fighting in the South Pacific. To an audience in 2006, the line may seem a little too scripted, especially when delivered by the young perky blonde homemaker who has been on her knees carefully painting a coat of finish on a step stool, her hair covered by a kerchief and newspapers spread across the living room floor. But to a 1944 Broadway audience, she was simply voicing the frustration and fear they were all feeling after three years of combat.
The Mint Theatre, that exceptionally swell company that revives forgotten American plays in their matchbox of a theatre inconspicuously located in a 43rd Street office building, is not likely to be doing this light wartime comedy because of its relevance today. Though couples still become separated by war, the ability to communicate in real time has increased dramatically and although I don't wish to underestimate the affects of long term separation on contemporary couples, it's not quite the same as 65 years ago, when letters from overseas took weeks to arrive, if they arrived at all. No, this one is not for those who can't appreciate the pleasures of dated theatre performed (as directed by Eleanor Reissa) with unflinching earnestness. And that's what The Mint does so well.
Soldier's Wife, though unknown today, was certainly not a Broadway flop. Opening in October of 1944, with Martha Scott and Myron McCormick in the lead roles, it received favorable notices for and ran a respectable 253 performances, closing less than a week after V-E Day, and was included in that season's Burns Mantle Best Plays annual.
World War II was perhaps the last time U.S. soldiers were sent to fight a war that had the full support of the American people throughout its duration. It's a jolt to the modern ear to hear a radio report at the play's opening where the newscaster uses a racist term for the Japanese. Listening attentively is Kate Rogers (perky Angela Pierce). Last she knew, her husband John (a nicely awkward Michael Polack), who has never seen their infant son, has been stationed somewhere in the South Pacific. She's completely unaware that he'll be home in a matter of minutes, having suffered minor wounds that have left him ineligible for combat duty.
It's the shifting dynamic of their marriage that is the main issue in Soldier's Wife. When they last saw each other 18 months ago, their gender roles were spelled out for them. But now Kate has learned how to manage the finances and take care of household chores that were traditionally considered man's work. She doesn't mean to make John feel unneeded when she tells him how she's fixed the broken lamp and radio, and John certainly doesn't want to hold her back, but he can't help feeling he'd be more useful back with his unit. ("While men are dying I don't want to be lying in a soft bed eating good food.")
Their lives are further complicated when John tells Kate that he allowed a hospitalized buddy, with family connections in publishing, to read the letters she wrote to him, as a way of helping him pass the lonely time. It turns out Kate's writing has a universality that touches the hearts of lonely couples separated by war, and she's convinced to have them published in a volume that quickly becomes a best seller.
The second of the three acts introduces a pair of literary types who seemed to have wandered into the wrong theatre while looking for a summer stock production of Auntie Mame. The cynical playwright Alexander Craig (Jordan Lage) is earning some extra cash free-lancing an interview with Kate for a woman named Peter Gray (Kate Levy), editor of a popular women's magazine. Though well played by the actors, they're the type of pseudo-sophisticated characters who speak in quips and don't fit into the same play as the main couple. On the more realistic side is Kate's sister Florence, played with blunt wisecracking intelligence by Judith Hawking, who has a wonderfully subtle dramatic moment involving a personal tragedy.
Costume designer Clint E.B. Ramos comes up with some fun over-the-top chic outfits for Peter and Kate, while Nathan Heverin's homey apartment set is detailed and comfortable.
"You put your nickel in the slot and hit the jackpot and all you want is your nickel back", says Kate when considering the price of fame and self-sufficiency. Her ultimate decision on how she wants to live her life may seem outdated today, but in 1944 it must have served as comfort food for lonely separated couples worried how their relationships would survive once the fighting ceased.
Photo of Angela Pierce and Michael Polak by Richard Termine