BWW Review: TRYING at Square One Theatre
TRYING by Joanne McClelland Glass is a play about an odd couple. He is an old, cantankerous retired judge and she is his newly hired, young, idealistic assistant. Her duties are to help him organize his bills, sort and type correspondence, and help him finish writing his memoirs. Set in 1967, the play is based on the author's real-life working relationship with Judge Francis Biddle, former U.S. Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt and judge at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
Judge Biddle is highly intelligent but irascible. He has a history of making his secretaries cry, is very exacting in everything from arrival time, who gets to turn on the heaters in the small office over the garage where they work, to use of proper language, and making sure that he is not privy to the details of the private lives of those who work for him. He is prone to small fits of fury that seem to come out of nowhere and is quick to point out faults in others and belittle them when not up to his standards.
Sarah is the opposite. She has a more laid-back approach to life and is just starting out as his secretary, with the idea that this is just a starter job on her way to becoming a writer. She has her own opinions about everything, including a disdain for the pleated skirt Ivy League graduates that Biddle has worked with in the past. She is of sturdy Canadian stock, hailing from the prairies of Saskatchewan, with a solid work ethic and a can-do attitude. She is strong enough in her modern sensibilities to call Biddle out on his cruelty and his bull.
Naturally the two clash in the beginning, but they eventually warm up to each other over a shared love of poetry. What starts out as an uneasy working relationship soon settles into begrudging respect and eventual friendship. They learn to care for each other as Biddle's health declines and Sarah deals with a pregnancy in an uncertain marriage and an uncertain future.
Such an intimate and moving play about an intergenerational friendship depends on the strength of the two actors that portray the individuals. Square One has perfectly cast regional favorite Al Kulcsar as Judge Biddle and Céline Montaudy as Sarah. Mr. Kulcsar embodies the judge completely from the start, including taking on the gait and physicality of a man facing the end of his life with its accompanying aches and pains. He delivers a nuanced performance and can switch from being a highly intelligent, analytical, and astute judge to being an angry curmudgeon with no patience for Sarah's perceived shortcomings. What is especially enthralling to watch is Mr. Kulcsar's ability to show the audience that the judge's fits of fury mask his own vulnerability when faced with the challenges of memory loss, debilitating illness, and his own mortality. When he learns that Sarah has agreed with his wife to move the office out of the garage to inside his home so he won't have to walk so far and climb a set of stairs, you can feel his dejection at finally having to accept that the end is near. It is a bittersweet performance for a bittersweet time in life.
Ms. Montaudy is also perfect as Sarah. At a time when women's societal roles were changing, she invokes the uncertainty of a young woman in a less than perfect marriage, facing motherhood, and teetering on the edge of launching her own career with only a budding sense of who she wants to be. And she does all of this with aplomb while genuinely helping and caring for a difficult man dealing with end of life issues. Sturdy Canadian stock indeed!