Trying, a two-person play based on playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’s time as personal secretary to judge Francis Biddle, is an innocuous play. Biddle was the former secretary of state for president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the chief justice of the Nuremburg Trials from 1941–1945. In Trying, he’s eighty-two and approaching death in the surliest of ways.
The play takes place in 1967, in the Georgetown, Washington, D.C. office of Biddle. The room says as much about Biddle’s mental state as it does about his physical ailments (astute yet forgetful, occasionally bitter, debilitating arthritis). There’s not a modern object in sight save for a typewriter, the provenance of which is not discussed. Biddle is trying to finish his memoirs but needs an aide to help him.
When his new hire, Sarah Schorr (Emily Gunyou Halaas), enters Biddle’s office for the first time on a snowy winter morning, he warns her that he’s impossible to work for and that he’s made all his other secretaries quit. Sarah, a self-possessed twenty-five-year-old, is undeterred, and the play, predictable and often trite, begins.
Biddle is played by Richard Ooms, a tall man with a glowing presence and the face of a pussycat. If you see him around town, you automatically start to grin and want to hug the man. He keeps his innate incandescence mostly under wraps throughout the first act, where the script gives him nothing more to do than be cranky, limp about, and quip one-liners into the cold Georgetown air.
Sarah is a “bugger for work” who takes on her formidable task with stony determination. Trying to get Biddle to finish transcribing his memoirs before he passes away is a task, made even harder by his deliberate attempts to make her miserable. Ooms does a nice job of playing Biddle not as a monster, but rather the opposite—the closer Biddle gets to death, the more he wants to distance himself from other people.
The rest of the play is as one would expect, with Sarah taking the reigns at the end of act one, the pair becoming close friends by the start of act two, and the inevitable death of Biddle by the end of it.
True to conventional-play form, there are endless wordplays on the title (the multiple meanings of the verb/adverb “trying” shall haunt me all weekend) and the overt symbols are not particularly graceful. Sarah is pregnant by the end of the play—and Glass’s metaphor is plain as day. As one life ends, another begins. It’s not a new sentiment, and the actors save it from being theatrically dead on arrival. In the hands of another pair, Trying would be trying indeed.
Trying closes tomorrow at Park Square Theatre.