Reviewed by Judy Richter
Strictly from a financial standpoint, "Trying" by Joanne McClelland Glass must seem like a dream to theater companies because it needs only one set and two actors. From an artistic standpoint, however, "Trying" is a huge challenge because those two actors must be just right for their roles and must mesh perfectly. TheatreWorks meets that challenge by casting Bay Area theater legend Ken Ruta and the up-and-coming Amanda Duarte.
Ruta plays Judge Francis Biddle, the respected jurist who, among other accomplishments, served as U.S. attorney general under President Franklin Roosevelt, then served as a judge at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg after World War II. Duarte plays Sarah Schorr, a young Canadian who works as his personal secretary from November 1967 through June 1968, during what turned out to be the last year of his life. The setting is his office in a converted hay loft at his historic home in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.
At age 81, he is acutely aware of his mortality, while Sarah is just getting started in her adult life. Biddle, though still brilliant, has physical problems, not the least of which is painful arthritis. He's also cranky, demanding, unpredictable and outspoken. Hence he has had a series of secretaries, most of whom quit in frustration. Sarah is different. Hired and informed by Biddle's wife, she's determined to stick it out.
Despite numerous clashes, she does stick it out. Over time, they learn from each other. He reveals some of his vulnerabilities, such as his abiding grief from the death of his 7-year-old son many years ago. She alludes to her unhappy marriage. He corrects her grammar and usage, bristling at split infinitives and telling her that one reads voluminously, not omnivorously. She informs him that ancestry and the college one attended are not a valid measures of a person's worth. The title of the play alludes to the fact that both of them are willing to try to understand each other.
The play is somewhat autobiographical, for Glass did serve as Biddle's secretary in the months before his death in 1968 at age 81. It's also a sensitive look at a man reflecting on his life and wondering about his death. Ruta is nothing short of magnificent in the role, skillfully portraying Biddle's increasing physical infirmities as well as his external and internal reactions to Amanda's youthful gumption. Many of his lines are humorous, but they're often underlain with poignancy.
In addition to the sheer talent of the two actors, credit goes to director Jack Fletcher, who so deftly melds their individual performances into a seamless whole. The cluttered, book-lined set is by Duke Durfee with lighting by Chad Bonaker. Costume designer Jill Bowers captures the period and characters perfectly, complete with the boots and galoshes they wear when the play opens in November. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers evokes the era with snatches of radio speeches by Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, followed by the broadcast of Kennedy's assassination. These sound bites also are reminders of Biddle's lifelong championing of civil rights.
"Trying" is a well crafted play, and Ruta's performance is a true tour de force.