BWW Reviews: Lovely Two CharacterTRYING Brings Back 40s and 60s History and Nostalgia to ICT in Long Beach
Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass's autobiographical Trying is a two character play based on her working relationship as secretary to Judge Francis Biddle from 1967-68 in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Now in a fine production at ICT in Long Beach, Trying recounts the difficult professional and personal growth of Sarah Schorr (Paige Lindsey White) at the beginning of her career and Biddle (Tony Abatemarco) in the final days of his, against the backdrop of 60s political turmoil. With excellent direction from John Henry Davis and two astounding performances, Trying runs to September 14 only.
Francis Biddle, a Republican turned Democrat, was Attorney General under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1946 and then a judge at the Nuremberg Trials; the range of intelligence of this man was phenomenal, and for Glass to squeeze most of that intelligence into a two-hour play is no small task, but somehow she seems to nail the characterization, as we learn so very much detail about him, in spite of his devastating memory loss. At 81 in 1967 when Schorr joined on as secretary, Biddle was in failing health and makes it perfectly clear from the onset that this is his final year. "The exit sign is flashing above the door and the door is ajar," he repeats innumerable times. He also repeatedly tells Schorr that the last secretary, who left the portable heaters on full blast, was responsible for a fire that burned out much of the room - an attic-like space above the garage that serves as his office across the courtyard from his home. He bickers constantly with Sarah, never trusting anything she does, kind of the way he argues daily with his wife Katherine, but Sarah, a prairie girl from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, is so determined to make this stepping.stone job work, that she braves the insults and her own personal problems as she faces pregnancy within an unsatisfying marriage. Biddle of course gradually warms to her, as he does need a friend and confidante, and she to him for the same reason, in spite of their enormous difference in age, she 25, he almost 82. The play does prove - and with much humor - that friendship has no age boundaries and that two people who are very different in background and personality can and do find common ground for learning, eventual success and... mutual admiration.
The play never gets too bogged down or soppy, as Glass's perspective includes plenty of Biddle's ferocious sense of humor that pervades his irascible nature. Biddle, reading fledgling manuscripts about the Nuremberg trials and the Japanese Internment, and writing his own memoirs of the period, is a stickler for good grammar. "I may be an invalid, but not entirely invalid." "One eats voraciously and reads voluminously." He is constantly singing the praises of elitist women who went to Smith, Mt. Holyoke or Wellesley Colleges and insulting poor Schorr because of her Canadian education, accusing her of using split infinitives, and there are consistent lessons on how to use bring/take as well as lie/lay, etc. Schorr tangles with Biddle early on about his contradictory elitist preferences versus his supposed democratic views and opinions...again not without wit and the abundant strength to win him over to her side. In the background, on a radio, we hear Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, LBJ, and news blasts about the escalating Vietnam War, serving to remind us that there exists a far bigger picture of devastation outside the confinement of these walls.
Under John Henry Davis' fluid direction, the acting is superb. Abatemarco gives a tour.de.force performance as Biddle, all exterior toughness and crustiness yet occasionally letting some tenderness, heart and real wisdom shine through. White as Sarah is equally dynamic, displaying determination, warmth, intelligence, vulnerability and perseverance right up to the very end. JR Bruce's set design with hundreds and hundreds of books strewn literally everywhere across the stage sets the perfect intellectual tone and unsettling atmosphere for the play.
With so much knowledge and insight to gain from this wonderful piece, I will say go, go, go and wrap yourself up in its beautiful language as well as heartfelt message about persistence, and Trying to 'stay the course' despite all odds.