BWW Review: TRYING at 1st Stage
1st Stage's season opener, Trying is based on playwright Joanna McClelland Glass' 1967 tenure as Judge Francis Biddle's secretary.
Hired by Mrs. Biddle, Sarah's first meeting with her employer only confirms Mrs. Biddle's warnings. Semi-coherent and imperiously aristocratic, Judge Biddle is immediately wary of his perky and prompt secretary. A recent Canadian transplant to Washington, DC, Sarah withstands an onslaught of repetitive rants about the stupidity of his previous secretaries. Her fortitude is admirable, even if the culturally obligatory "yes, sir", "no, sir" answers made me wince.
In scene after scene, Judge Biddle and Sarah do battle with the prejudices that stem from their 56-year age gap. At almost 82, Judge Biddle has a short fuse. If she is going to cry, he tells her, she must do it in the bathroom. Finally, the idealistic Sarah snaps. Infuriated by Judge Biddle's imperious attitude and preoccupation with the Ivy League, she threatens to walk out. Replete with tension, this scene is beautifully executed.
Despite the vast gulf between Sarah and Judge Biddle, they eventually find their way to each other. Sarah is overcome by the vast scope of the Judge's accomplish (in real-life he was the American judge at the Nuremberg trials and one-time Attorney General of the United States) and despite his misgivings and at Sarah's insistence, the Judge records a message of the Dictaphone. Ok, I know the Dictaphone thing doesn't sound like a big deal, but as the Judge points out, at one point he had to wrap his head around the invention of the telephone.
It would be patronizing to say that Judge Biddle experiences character growth. After all, as he puts it so bluntly, he has done all of his growing. Even so, Sedar's ailing Judge Biddle, the classic anti-hero, just about broke my heart. McClelland Glass' Judge Biddle experiences a wide range of emotions, all of which Sedar executes with ease.
At first blush, Sarah is the archetypal secretary; eager to please and just a little bit boring. Aided by a smart script that exploits the humor and tragedy of the human experience, Forstrom's Sarah develops into a self-possessed young woman and more than a match for Sedar's pedantic and argumentative Judge Biddle.
Sedar and Forstrom are a wonderful pairing and hold the weight of this two person production squarely and capably on their shoulders. At over two hours, Trying is not a short play, but Sedar and Forstrom deliver long monologues and bicker with ease.
To compliment Biddle's preoccupation with death are his many friends offstage, most of whom have passed away. McClelland Glass makes good use of the offstage character to move the plot along. Despite knowing that this was a two-person play, I found myself waiting for Mrs. Biddle, hirer of Sarah and the harbinger of news good and bad (via the telephone), to make her grand entrance.
1st Stage has upended their traditional theater space in favor of a thrust stage. The proximity to the actors, the small stage, and the intimate set draws the audience into the story. There are drawbacks to this stage design. Despite 1st Stage's Artistic Director and the Director of Trying Alex Levy's instruction, I watched patrons walk across the stage and between set pieces to get to their seats. As an audience member, I experienced intermittently obstructed views.
Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki's set may not be groundbreaking, but it is both functional and realistic. Costume Designer Moyenda Kulemeka's attractive 60s-inspired wardrobe stands up well to Trying's half-dozen speedy costume changes.
Trying will resonate best with older generations, but I still found it highly relatable. My co-workers giggle when I admit I've never used a typewriter, and despite my best efforts, I roll my eyes every time someone asks me how to use Excel. Over 50 years after Judge Biddle's death, everyone in every office in America is still trying. As a lifelong Washingtonian, I loved the references to my hometown, even the ones that I had to Google when I left the theater.
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
TRYING plays through October 20th at 1st Stage located at 1524 Spring Hill Rd, Tysons, VA 22102. For tickets click here.