note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’ two-act, 2-1/2-hour, two-person play, “Trying,” is a multifacted view of the titled word that’s poignantly presented at the Gloucester Stage Company.
The play is part of the theater’s summer season of love, laughter and redemption. Set in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., in 1967-8, from November to June, “Trying” is based on Glass‘ personal experience. It’s the fictionalized account of 25-year-old Sarah Schorr, who, like playwright Glass, hails from the prairie town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. She has taken a one-year position as personal secretary to Judge Francis Biddle, a prestigious attorney general during World War II who served under Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a primary chief judge of the post-war Nuremberg Trials. He proudly spouts that his father was a Yale man, but the judge graduated from Harvard.
Biddle is an eloquent, crochety, crusty arthritic who’s set in his ways at 81 --- or as he puts it, “will be 82 next year”. He has a myriad of ailments and illnesses and is very aware that he is on his way out, while Sarah (“with an h”) is a young woman on the brink of her life, who is undaunted by his outbursts and his insistence on doing things independently.
The play is like a carefully-choreographed ballet, with Biddle’s fuss-budgety outbursts, his unbending demands for everything in its place and a place for everything; his insults and inability to hold a secretary --- all this contrasting Sarah’s emerging growth and steadfastness.
While she’s a bugger for work, he’s a bugger for correct speech. Split infinitives are a thorn in his side, he says, and “Our language is deteriorating at the speed of light”. His office, located in his 1830‘s former stable, is in disarray. He bitterly complains about stupid former secretaries, one who accidentally set the place on fire because she left the space heaters on. He corrects Sarah constantly, calling her “single-minded and nagging”. He’s disinterested in her personal life, and sneers at her training with speed writing instead of the long-accepted Gregg secretarial methods.
While writing his memoirs and answering letters, Biddle reveals his human side --- the loss of his son, which he never overcame. He tosses out names and incidents involving prestigious heads of states and politicians that read like an American historical lexicon: FDR and his wife Eleanor; the Rev. Endicott Peabody (who taught “sanctimonious religiosity” at Groton); Oliver Wendell Holmes; Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, among others.
Sarah isn’t starry-eyed, though. She’s there to do a job and do it well - and she does. By inches, Biddle admits he forgets things and can’t accomplish all he wants. He’s a proud, intelligent, accomplished man, who dismisses his memory “lapses” offhandedly, while Sarah is humble, yet persistent. She refuses to wither under his harangues.
In the climactic scene of when Biddle asks her to not leave and vows to try harder, the audience is reverently hushed. When Sarah asserts herself at times, the audience applauds her spunk.
Accomplished actor Richard Mawe is magnificent as Judge Biddle. However, newcomer Becky Powers delivers a fine performance but is inaudible when she turns her back to the audience.
Jenna MacFarland Lord’s set is excellent, with her subtle use of a window with projected trees, clouds, and snow to denote change of season and time of day. And Molly Trainer’s costumes are 1960’s conservative chic.
“Trying” is a poignant play about a non-romantic May-December relationship that touches everyone --- a bittersweet reminder of the cycle of life and its passage, all too soon.
BOX INFO: Two-act, 2-1/2-hour, two-person play,written by Joanna McClelland Glass, starring Richard Mawe and Becky Webber, directed by Eric Engel, appearing now through August 8 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main St., Gloucester. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday, at 8 p.m.; matinees, August 7 at 3 p.m., August 8 at 4 p.m. Tickets are $37; seniors, students, $32. Call 978-281-4433 or visit www.gloucesterstage.org.