As Judge Francis Biddle’s personal secretary, Joanna McClelland Glass spent the last year of his life crossing swords with the great man. Her play “Trying,” at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through April 8, is a semi-autobiographical account of their relationship, which developed as the two endured each other’s company.
This play doesn’t delve deeply into one historic figure in his later years; rather it rubs together two characters from different social strata and different life stages to see what sparks will fly. And fly they do. Judge Biddle (Phillip Goodwin) is of the Philadelphia Biddles. In William Penn’s day, his ancestors bought large swaths of New Jersey. A prep-school and Harvard Law graduate, he later became U.S. Attorney General under FDR, and he was a judge in the Nuremburg Trials. He changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat when he realized the depth of poverty in America.
Enter Sarah Schorr (Carly Zien). The play is set in 1967. Sarah is a fresh 25-year-old from Saskatoon who floated into Washington with her husband, a Ph.D. candidate in physics. She’s been annealed in the harsh climate of the Canadian prairies, steeled by a fierce work ethic and a burning desire to make it as a writer. She’s plucky and determined. Her over-eager first day as Biddle’s secretary gets off on the wrong foot, however. Unimpressed by her humble origins and her early arrival, he admonishes, "You'll find, if you stay, that I'm far more impressed by adherence to rules.”
Indeed, the rules are minutiae — where to put the morning coffee and the mail, when to arrive, when to leave, and what to do and not to do: Don’t turn off the space heaters, do your crying in the bathroom, and never split infinitives. Crusty and ailing, Biddle wears out secretaries, who wilt under his withering criticism. Their troubles weary him. At age 81, he lacks the “resources” to deal with their personal problems. Even his wife gets his back up. An argument with her — a “tune-up” — will set him off for the day. He’s “somewhere between lucidity and senility,” always aware of mortality. As he says, “The exit light is blinking over the door, and the door is ajar.”
Not to be undone, Sarah constantly presses him to focus and “outline my duties.” He has letters to answer and his publisher is pressing him to finish his memoirs. Meanwhile, checkbooks and bills are hopelessly confused and creditors are threatening. Sarah stands her ground and talks back, astonishing the Judge. “You are bold as brass!” he remarks.
What draws them together in spite of it all this a love of poetry and literature. The poet e.e. cummings, a Harvard man, is a particular favorite. They delight in reciting his more scatological verses. By midway through their year, they have arrived at a sort of working détente, although not without some resistance along the way. And, predictably, the judge does show a soft core, and the secretary lifts the mask to expose her own vulnerabilities.
Although the play is by no means an in-depth character study, it’s a gently humorous portrait of two people coming to terms with the seemingly vast cultural and generational gap that separates them. The natural dialogue never sounds artificial or forced. The playwright has created characters whose actions and development seem organic. The judge does suffer ailments of his age — a shuffling gate, memory lapses, and illness (sometimes horizontally, most often vertically, he says). But Goodwin never portrays him as an ageist caricature. He is a picture of cantankerous nobility.
This play was first produced more than a decade ago. That being said, some of its issues are remarkably in tune with the times. In particular, Zien’s Sarah shows strong defiance of an overpowering male ego. At one point she throws on her coat to go out the door rather that sit around for the judge’s fulminating. That earns a round of applause.
The well-crafted drama tells a story on a small, human scale. No towering rages or scenery chewing here. But with this excellent cast of two, their interaction is always involving. The two hours, with one brief intermission between acts, seem to fly by. It’s a diverting play showcasing two excellent actors.
“Trying” continues at George Street Playhouse, 300 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, through April 8. For tickets and information, go to georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.