Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Trying

Joanna McClelland Glass
Finborough Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

It’s rare to leave a theatre having been moved to laughter and tears by a production, the simplicity and integrity of which is as refreshing as it is strangely reassuring. Trying by Joanna McClelland Glass is an astonishing play. Not because it deals with fundamental issues of human existence. Not because it introduces characters at a moment of high anxiety or passionate glory. No, Trying is astonishing because it allows us to observe the interaction between an irascible old legal warhorse and his young and idealistic new secretary. Through that observation, we learn to love the characters onstage, to really care for them. Rare indeed.

Derek Bond has directed what is already an internationally-travelled and very slick play with obvious regard both for his actors and his audience. Staged in James Perkins’s Tardis-like set, which simply though effectively recreates the above-garage office of the retired US Judge Francis Biddle, Trying lets us discover the world of Washington DC in November 1967. It is one man’s world, one man who, because of the turbulent years of the twentieth century, had experienced more than his fair share of historical events.

Biddle had not just experienced history, he had, quite literally, made history. As United States Solicitor General under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Biddle had contentiously directed the FBI to arrest ‘enemy aliens’ in a crackdown on Japanese citizens after Pearl Harbour. More famously, he had also presided at the Nuremberg War Crimes trial of twenty of the most notorious members of Germany’s Nazi party. His memories were the stuff of an historian’s dreams.

Now in old age, finding it difficult to walk and difficult, occasionally, to remember what he was about to say, Biddle is forced by his devoted wife to accept yet another secretary. Having successfully ousted several before, Biddle receives into his chaotic world a Canadian, Mrs Sarah Schoor.

Sarah (“with an ‘H’”) would have made her namesake, Sarah Palin, proud. Like any good ‘hockey mom’ she advises the old judge to pull tight the laces on his skates and hit the ice. Hardly a man to let anyone, let alone his secretary, lecture him, we watch as authoritarian patriarch is reduced to obedient elderly statesman by the homespun good sense of his young employee.

Michael Craig, veteran of stage and film, plays Biddle. This wonderful actor, who celebrated his eightieth birthday in January, gives a superb performance. Craig allows Biddle to bluster and blast, cajole and complain, with authoritative ease. Ever ready to counter the first sign of a split infinitive, Biddle could have been presented as a stereotypical ‘grumpy old man’. In Craig’s hands, Biddle becomes a old man with whom we can empathize and enjoy all the repeated stories and anecdotes, all the outrageous pompous remarks, and all the flashes of human emotion and warmth.

Meghan Popiel as Sarah Schoor is a worthy counterpart to Craig’s Biddle. Popiel exudes a strength, assurance, and vulnerability which add a multi-layered realism to her character. We feel we know this young woman. We recognize her weaknesses as well as her dynamism. Together, Popiel and Craig make a devastating combination, watchable from opening moment to poignantly joyful end.

Trying does not try to lead us on a difficult journey. Indeed, we are led gently by the hands through the closing years of an old man’s life. There is nothing maudlin here. There is compassion and care - words so much more meaningful than mere love - in this narrative which brings together two people who, under normal circumstances, would never have met. Simplicity and integrity and superb acting. Trying is with me still.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby