Literate, compelling, and uplifting, Trying is a fine two-person play brought to life with simple style and a gentle grace by 1st Stage. Director Alex Levy has an impeccable cast to work with, abetted by excellent contributions from his design collaborators.
Trying is the story of the late Francis Biddle, an old-school, patrician son of a prominent Philadelphia family who became a renowned judge and, from 1941 to 1945, Franklin Roosevelts’ Attorney General. After the Second World War, Biddle further served as the Chief Judge of the American Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
But none of these great accomplishments provide the meat of Joanna McClelland Glass’ play. Instead, it is around 1967and Biddle is in his decline. Physically ailing, his fine mind betraying him with increasing frequency, Biddle is sizing up yet another secretary in his makeshift office, situated above the garage at his Georgetown home. The new assistant, Sarah Schorr is a 25-year old, Canadian transplant with aspirations of becoming a serious writer. Biddle is not impressed.
In fact, Sarah is a stand-in for the playwright herself. Glass based this play on her time serving as Biddle’s secretary until the judge’s death in 1968.
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That personal touch and the rich character study of Biddle are reasons enough to check out this regional premiere of Glass’s 2004 play. With affection and the perspective of time, the writer offers a compelling journey that goes from tense detente to almost a parental connection.
As the brittle Judge Biddle, Scott Sedar strikes a fine balance between full-on curmudgeon and elder statesman, facing body aches and an increasingly wandering mind. As Biddle tries to conduct business as normal, the passage of time works against him. Sedar captures his deterioration skillfully and with utter believability.
Amanda Forstrom puts a strong and sympathetic performance as his new secretary, foil and companion. Smartly dressed in perfect period outfits thanks to designer Moyenda Kulemeka, Forstrom’s portrayal of Sarah’s gentle but firm independence and strong “spine” – a main requirement for Biddle’s secretaries – brings to life the delicate relationship at the heart of the play.
Trying closes November 3, 2019. Details and tickets
The two actors have a field day as the judge and the secretary learn to work together and gain in trust and understanding. Biddle insists on many rules and expects strict adherence to all of them, even if he forgets to share what they are with Sarah. Everything from adjusting the heat to where to place the morning coffee tray are run with military precision. In Sarah, we see a compassionate young lady who sees someone who needs guidance and even prodding – sometimes gentle, and increasingly firm. Her patience is nearly infinite and her skill at traversing the rough waters of their working relationship is a huge part of the enjoyment of watching Trying.
So is Sedar’s electric portrayal of Judge Biddle, one of the most literate (and witty) characters I have run across in many a play. “I am preparing to exit this life. The exit sign above the door is flashing and the door is ajar,” Biddle tells Sarah. He is jaunty, but his message is ominous. As Sarah helps him with correspondence, business dealings, and life in general, the burgeoning father-daughter flavor of their relationship becomes quite touching, especially in the last scenes of the play.
Levy directs the strong relationship well and is aided by the perfectly cast actors. Only the pacing, which lagged or lost energy a few times, could be improved. Scenic designer Kathryn Kawecki provides a detailed and functional set, complete with lofty ceiling and stately wood paneling that gives the proper Georgetown flavor. William K. D’Eugenio lights the set with great precision.
Trying works its magic quietly, offering a beautiful character study and some delicious dialogue along with way. At the same time, it reminds us about one of the greatest legal minds of the last century, Francis Biddle. Kudos to 1st Stage for giving it a chance to shine.
Trying by Joanna McClelland Glass . directed by Alex Levy . Featuring Amanda Forstrom and Scott Sedar . Set design: Kathryn Kawecki . Lighting design: William K. D’Eugenio . Costume design: Moyenda Kulemeka . Sound design: Ethan Balis . Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.