You could approach Trying at 1st Stage as a realistic, two-character play about a real-life character, Judge Francis Biddle, and his new secretary, Sarah Schorr. Born to a life of wealth and privilege, Biddle first worked as private secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Later, Biddle was the Attorney General of the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chief Judge of the American Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
You could approach Trying that way, but doesn’t the premise of the play become more interesting when you realize that it was written by none other than Joanna McClelland Glass, who was, in fact, Judge Biddle’s secretary during the last year of his life, from November 1967 to June 1968?
Suddenly, the play has a new dimension. You know that the lines that are being spoken in 1st Stage’s polished production are not representations of an intriguing fictional relationship: they are snappy, energy-infused exchanges that may have actually happened.
Trying begins in November 1967 in the office of Judge Biddle, which is built over the garage of the Biddles’ Georgetown, DC home. Biddle is eighty-one and in failing health, trying to write his memoirs and put a lifetime of work in order. His office is messy, with papers littering his desk, his secretary’s desk, and his coffee table.
The state of the office is a reflection of Biddle’s increasingly disorganized mind. At the beginning of the play, he pays one bill multiple times and in different amounts. By the end of the play, he makes a telephone call and then forgets that he has made it. Being cantankerous, fussy, and nearly apoplectic when people split infinitives, Biddle loses secretaries almost as fast as he hires them.
Enter Sarah Schorr, twenty-five years old. She has been hired by Biddle’s wife, who sees in her the kind of determination and spunk it takes to survive Biddle’s difficult personality. A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, Sarah is proud of her rustic stock, of being from “the plains.” Although that makes her the polar opposite of Biddle, who was born in Paris and attended Harvard University, Sarah enjoys hard work and it shows: as the play progresses, the layers of paper that covered every horizontal surface in the first scene gradually disappear and Sarah brings a visible amount of order to Judge Biddle’s life.
That order doesn’t just mean that Sarah shows the judge the latest thing in speedwriting – of which he disapproves in principle, because it is not the same as the shorthand he knew from years ago. She eventually buys him a secondhand dictaphone, so that they can speed up the process of getting his memoirs done: he can use the machine while she types up the latest tapes. Slowly, Sarah introduces Judge Biddle to the delights of office organization in the twentieth century.
Scott Sedar plays Judge Biddle very effectively, as the opposite of an angry old man caricature. He owns his intelligent crankiness and revels in it. He knows that he was a brilliant jurist who lived among other brilliant jurists. He deeply regrets the role he played in the Japanese internment camps in World War II. He knows how far he has fallen, mentally and physically. As is true of many of the elderly, he can recall with perfect clarity a letter he wrote thirty years ago or a poem he learned in college, though he forgets something he did one day earlier.
Amanda Forstrom plays Sarah as a young woman who is wise beyond her years. She reveres her boss and respects the parts he has played both in American history and the history of the world. Forstrom smoothly makes Sarah credible as a lover of poetry and as a first-rate secretary. Whether she is teaching Judge Biddle to use the dictaphone or rubbing Bengay into his arthritic knuckles, it is usually Sarah who offers, Judge Biddle who receives.
Apart from the characters entering and leaving the central office space and Biddle’s pacing at the beginning of the play, Trying offers only vocal exchanges. Director Alex Levy deals with that text-heavy threat by keeping the dialogue moving at a rapid pace. Biddle may walk with a cane, but his mind is still very much alive. Levy also emphasizes Biddle’s sly sense of humor, lobbing comments to Sarah, all of which she gets and lobs right back.
Kathryn Kawecki’s set delightfully upsets the usual seating pattern at 1st Stage. It turns the playing area into a thrust stage with audience members facing that area on three sides. Two doors allow the actors to enter the office from outside and access a bathroom from the office. Huge wooden beams indicate rafters, creating a sense of the office’s size. The interior is filled with Judge Biddle’s large wooden desk flanked by three full-sized metal filing cabinets, Sarah’s smaller desk facing Judge Biddle’s, and a small coffee table just big enough to hold a morning coffee tray.
Trying is divided into several scenes with crisp blackouts between them (William K. D’Eugenio, lighting designer). Ethan Balis’ sound design provides a light, romantic piano score for those breaks between scenes. Moyenda Kulemeka’s costumes capture the look of the 1960s, primarily in Sarah’s trendy short skirt and cape.
Being so different in background and outlook, you might expect that Sarah and Biddle would do nothing but “try” each other’s spirits. In fact, in the short time that they spend together, they create a rare, caring atmosphere made up of respect and the uncommon nature of friendship. Thanks to Glass and Levy, the flowering of this extraordinary environment is viewed with no sentimentality, just the straightforward illogic of mutual understanding.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
Recently extended through November 3rd!