February 21, 2006

When the Mint revives a play, they do it proud — full-scale production; well-researched program notes; intelligent “surround events,” including topical discussions led by outside experts, to put its themes into historical perspective; even a lobby library of relevant books and plays. That’s the treatment given to “Soldier’s Wife,” Rose Franken’s 1944 dramedy about the domestic strains of adjustment when a soldier returns from the war to his young wife and the son he has never seen. What’s missing is the directorial will and dramaturgical muscle to make it something more than a museum piece.

As it proved with “Walking Down Broadway,” the 1931 play by Dawn Powell that opened its current season of neglected plays written by American women, the Mint shows great sensitivity for working with dated material.

The first tip-off comes from the meticulous visual detail of the production, from Jude Dvorak’s fabulous poster graphic (of a clean-cut soldier in a homecoming clinch with his fresh-faced wife) to the vintage radio that props master Scott Brodsky dug out from somebody’s attic.

It’s wartime in the world of this play, and helmer Eleanor Reissa is not about to let anyone forget it. When Captain John Rogers (Michael Polak) returns home after nine months in the South Pacific, invalided out by a “belly wound,” the director is even more particular than John’s wife, Kate (Angela Pierce), that nothing should look out of place.

As one character puts it, summing up the philosophy of the day, “A man’s entitled to come back from the war and find his world the way he left it.”

But while set designer Nathan Heverin has taken care to preserve the shabby-but-homey feeling of the couple’s Upper West Side apartment, there have been some big changes on the home front. There’s a baby in the back bedroom, for one thing. And scatterbrained Kate has become remarkably adept at fixing small appliances. Even his loyal sister-in-law Florence (Judith Hawking) has a nasty surprise to spring on the disoriented hero.

By the end of the first act, John has unloaded his survivor guilt and is headed for hysteria, triggered by what he sees as his redundancy in a brave new world of “strong women.” “What do you need me for?” he demands of Kate. “The war’s made a man of you.”

Although Franken’s writing is at its most awkward and repetitive in these early scenes, they are the most potent moments in the play, in that they sum up in a heartbeat the poignant discomfort between a husband and wife who have undergone the traumatic emotional displacement that war imposes. Unfortunately, they are also the most ill-played scenes in the play, by young actors who can’t disguise their yearning to just push through the sad stuff and get on with the comedy. Required to enact the awkwardness of their characters, they just play their own.

Ultimately, though, it is the playwright who fails to develop the hot-button issues she raises, running for cover in a sitcom domestic plot and falling back on the ladies-magazine style of writing that made her a mainstay of journals like Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Instead of exploring in more depth the emotional dynamic of postwar homecomings, she cooks up a cute story about Kate’s flirtation with fame and fortune when her letters to John are published and become a bestselling book.

Kate Levy, as a bitch of a magazine editor, and Jordan Lage, as a cynical journalist, have some amusing moments as the hustling dream merchants who do their seductive best to woo Kate into becoming a media whore. Franken obviously knew this world well, and her satiric swipes have a real cutting edge.

But this is trivial stuff, even though it does loosen up the stiff cast and give Pierce a chance to show her comic chops. And while Franken’s make-it-all-come-out-nice ending — in which Kate repairs the wounds to John’s psyche by giving up her claims to fame and settling down to domestic bliss in the suburbs — might be true to the postwar philosophy extolled by women’s magazine writers, it falls like a thud here.