Reviewed by Robin Breon
In the program notes to Trying, written by the playwright, Joanna McClelland Glass, she states (almost as a disclaimer): "I struggled with many drafts because, it seemed, at first, that the only appropriate 'homage' would be to depict the man at the height of his powers. To portray him arguing with Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, in Roosevelt's Cabinet, or in a German courtroom confronting Goering or Hess or Speer or Ribbentrop. But all attempts at historical biography ran aground on the shoals of 'research'. "
Pity. Glass's auto-biographical play about her professional encounter as the personal secretary to Francis Biddle, Attorney General under Franklin Roosevelt from 1941 - 1945 could have been a great play. But make no mistake about it; what Glass has come up with is a very good piece of work.
In the fall of 1967, in Washington D.C., Glass was hired to work as Biddle's private secretary. He was eighty-one at the time, memory fading with occasional tantrums and with the end of his life in view: "exit sign's flashing - door's ajar!" Biddle reminds us several times.
This two-hander is a nice turn on the odd couple with the feisty young "prairie populist" from Saskatchewan juxtaposed against the crusty old ivy leaguer who was raised along Philadelphia's main line and graduated cum laude from Harvard law. Biddle, played brilliantly by Paul Soles is a great role for a senior actor and Soles just chews up every bit of it. "If you don't like my principles, I've got others" says Biddle quoting Groucho Marx as he describes a lifetime working in law and politics.
Caroline Cave as the secretary, Sarah Schorr, does very well with what she has been given. However, the historical references - and they are indeed few - when they do appear seem contrived and artificial especially when the character refers to the civil rights movement in an effort to reveal how she feels about important issues of the day. It comes across as more of a pronouncement than as genuinely felt emotion.
Although director Marti Maraden has done a generally fine job in her work with the actors it is a mystery to me why she wastes so much time in superfluous scene changes on Christina Poddubiuk's lovely single set that captures Biddle's library/office perfectly. At the end of a scene, the lights fade to black and stage hands are called into action to generally clutter or unclutter the two desks. The changes don't advance the action of the play or indicate a change in time or place and aside from being disruptive to the dramatic pace of the play, are hardly noticeable once the lights come back up.
Still and all, Glass has written one of the finest new plays to come through this year's season in Toronto. I place it right up there with Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks' play, Bigger Than Jesus. Let's praise her for Trying.