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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Ford's Theatre's newest offering will warm up your chilly February nights! Starring James Whitmore and Karron Graves, Joanna McClelland Glass's play Trying is a total delight. Based on the playwright's own experiences, the story shares insights into the inner turmoil a former U.S. Attorney General and judge of the Nuremberg War Trials faces during the last year of his life.
Set in the late 1960's, Francis Biddle is at a point (as he states it) where the door is ajar and the exit sign is blinking. Approaching his 82nd year with failing memory and health, he is certain that this will be his last 12 months and so he is in the process of putting his affairs in order. His wife, the poet Katherine Biddle, has hired another in a long line of secretaries (they don't stay long) to assist the judge in helping him complete a book and answer the many professional requests he receives on a daily basis. This newest assistant, 25-year-old Sarah Schorr, is from the Canadian prairie (Saskatchewan) and comes at Judge Biddle with a mix of idealism, youthful vigor and fiery spunk.
Attempting to rally the judge's confidence, while also balancing his cantankerous moods and constant interruptions, Sarah insists, "But sir, we will be defeated by this paper, unless we lace up our skates and hit the ice!" As the months go on, the paper disappears and the fragile truce between the octogenarian and the young woman deepens into a true friendship. As their dialogue grows, we learn more about both characters. However the impetus of the play is sharing the ethics, principles and history of Judge Francis Biddle, who, it turns out, was a fascinating man.
Set in Georgetown, Jeff Bauer's stage looks and feels like a converted carriage house, complete with gas heaters. Rui Rita's lighting provides some nice highlights between scene changes as the home's lighted windows shine out at the audience. Pamela Scofield's costumes are right out of Life Magazine and Tony Angelini's wonderful sound design mixes civil rights moments with 60's pop songs thus giving us a look at the world outside Judge Biddle's office.
Director Gus Kaikkonen has brought his two actors into terrific harmony as they verbally spar on stage. Equally matched, their different styles meld quite well, and the entire piece is imbued with an unsentimental emotion that is quite charming to watch. Thus when the idea is broached of moving Judge Biddle's office across the yard and into the house, the emotion that fills the scene is believable and even more endearing.
As Sarah Schorr, Ms. Graves more than holds her own in Mr. Whitmore's company. Moving from young wife to mother-to-be, her performance also rings with an honesty which allows you to believe that Sarah does indeed fall under the spell of the irascible Judge Biddle and eventually becomes the wiser and stronger for it.
Mr. Whitmore provides an outstanding performance as he moves from mood to mood, one minute seeming egotistical, the next insecure. You can see where he has chased the previous seven assistants out the door, but at the same time you chuckle at the Inner Boy who is gleefully reveling in his mischievousness. And when he states that "All that we will ever learn about those that have been before us...we learn from their art," his strong voice resonates with the truth of the statement.
Ms. Glass' gentle script provides wonderful roles for both actors that include some very funny lines and emotional moments. She balances the comedy, political insight and human tenderness remarkably well. Trying also offers up some interesting parallels between the past and the present. Ideas on "muscular Christianity" and "military necessity" (the Japanese American internment during WW II) flow across the stage with a strange timeliness that brings nods and affirmations from the audience. Thus when Mr. Whitmore remarks "All through the years, Michelangelo and Vermeer send us their special rays," it is a reassurance -- not just to Sarah -- but too ourselves as well.
Trying is a diamond of a show in a season of many jewels and one that you should definitely make time to see!
Editor's Note: When Trying premiered Off-Broadway I commented that the play's future success would depend on the ability to find another pair of actors to match the stars of that production. Apparently Ford's Theater has managed to do so. To read the original review go here.
Trying/Glass, Joanna McClelland|