BWW Review: Theatre Artists Studio Presents Joanna Glass's TRYING ~ A Tender Portrait of Two Souls At Their Crossroads
He bears a pedigree that dates back to pre-Revolution days and carries the history of the nation on his slouched shoulders and in his encyclopedic mind, quoting the insights of Oliver Wendell Holmes, e.e.cummings, John Dos Passos, and sages of the classic past. He has fought battles for social justice ~ not always winning, wounded especially by his failure to fight harder against the internment of Japanese Americans ~ but now, in the twilight of his time, ensconced in his Georgetown study, he battles split infinitives and improper word usage, covets control of the thermostats, endures morning "tune ups" with his wife that "unravel" him for the day, and resists the new technologies (behold, the Dictaphone!) of a rapidly changing world.
She, a 25 year old aspiring writer from the bleak Prairie Provinces of Saskatchewan, enters the cloistered environs of this 81 year old cantankerous judge ~ poised in the awkward space "between senility and lucidity"~ as his latest assistant, determined to survive what her predecessors could not and to make something substantive of herself.
This is the relationship that Joanna McClelland Glass conveys in TRYING, the tender and poignant account of a year in her early life (1967-68) as the secretary to Francis Biddle, whose distinguished career included service as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Attorney General and President Harry Truman's appointee to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
Translating the interaction between two characters of such different backgrounds and dispositions ~ each at a crossroads in their lives, one whose sun is rising and the other's setting ~ requires a deft and balanced hand in the director's chair. In Theatre Artists Studio's current production of TRYING, Judy Rollings excels in meeting the challenge, keeping a perfect equilibrium between wit and solemnity, preserving the integrity of the characters and avoiding any scent of over-sentimentality.
This is a play that, as it tracks the passage of the characters and their evolving relationship, likewise requires performances that are steady, nuanced and authentic. Alan Austin as Biddle and Vanessa Benjamin as Sarah Schorr fulfill the requirements with sterling craftsmanship.
Austin's brilliance as Biddle lies in his superb melding of physicality with articulation. He emulates the frailty of the octogenarian who nevertheless dictates his letters and memoirs with the authority of a patrician, albeit his sentences are punctuated with pauses of breathlessness or forgetfulness. It's a moving and memorable performance that Austin delivers as a man tenaciously tied to a historic past and conventions that are being displaced by new inventions and attitudes.
Withstanding the slings and arrows of Austin's cranky, arthritic, and intolerant Biddle is Benjamin's Sarah, a profile of patience and fortitude. Her grit derives from the environment in which she grew up, and thus she describes herself as a prairie populist. At a pivotal moment in the battle between their wills, Sarah takes aim at unfair workplace practices and unearned promotions when she fearlessly delivers to the Judge a decisive verdict on privilege: "And I think it's important to take issue zealously with this cherished eastern belief that one's worth is measured by one's school. Or worse, that one's worth is measured by one's ancestors. The measure of one's worth is the measure of one's journey." The measure of Vanessa Benjamin's performance as Biddle's secretary is the measured way she transforms from a subordinate to an empowered woman.
There is a bridge to be built between generations, a conversation that should be had ~ as trying as it may be ~ that accounts for journeys taken, that reveals the lessons that emerge from trying each journey, and that inform the journeys yet to be traveled. In TRYING, Biddle and Sarah make passage through their respective crossroads, each having been transformed by their year-long "conversation," and each having giving the other an invaluable piece of their minds and hearts.
TRYING, featuring the outstanding direction of Judy Rollings, the superb performances of Alan Austin and Vanessa Benjamin, and the stately set design of Walt Pedano and Mary Robinson, continues its compelling run at Theatre Artists Studio through February 4th.
Photo credit to Mark Gluckman