Thursday, June 18, 2009
This piece is a curious blend of memoir and fiction, drawn directly from the playwright's year as personal secretary to the patrician Francis Biddle in 1967-1968, the last year of Biddle's life.
Biddle had clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes but had abandoned his Republic background to rally to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. FDR appointed him Solicitor General and then Attorney General of the United States throughout World War II. In that position Biddle approved the FBI proposal for internment camps for Japanese-American citizens.
Harry Truman removed him from the Cabinet, the first of Truman's changes to the FDR team. Truman tried to appoint Biddle to the UN Economic and Social Council but was blocked by Senate Republicans. Truman then appointed Biddle as U.S. judge for the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
Biddle had experienced from the inside the world-shaking events of U.S. history of the first half of the twentieth century. Judging from this text, he had fierce and dismissive opinions about most of them, expressed in 1968 to his respectful but plucky little 25-year-old secretary from Saskatoon. Judge Biddle was 81 years old and considered himself to be in the last year of his life. He admonished her that he had no time for training a new secretary, for changing his ways or for paying any attention whatsoever to her personal life. "When you feel the need to cry, the bathroom is behind that door."
Unseen but very much present is Biddle's wife Katherine, a person of equally strong character. Katherine chose the new secretary -- "Sarah-with-an-h" --and advises her by telephone as needed. Whenever the physically frail Judge has faced a clash with his wife over breakfast -- a "tune-up," as he terms it -- he is aggrieved and unable to work even during the modest three hours appointed weekdays.
Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass works a remarkable amount of Biddle's biography into the piece and creates him with a querulous, erudite voice that must mirror the man himself. Dear "Sarah-with-an-h" bears up to his moods with serenity and equanimity through six scenes unfolding his gradual acceptance of her. They feature his dictation of correspondence providing his final thoughts on history, his country and himself. Most vivid are comments written to a Japanese-American scholar, in which Biddle bitterly regrets the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese origin.
The clever poster image is misleading. This piece is not a wrestling match between the two characters, not even metaphorically. It's a portrait of Biddle in his own words, or close to them, and a witness to the author's growing affection for that abrasive but ethical old codger.
Don Owen inhabits Biddle with ease. If anything, he makes the man a good deal gentler than the text would suggest. For with carefully shaded business he makes us particularly aware of Biddle's frustrations with his failing health and with his mind, which at times goes inexplicably absent.
Nancy Eyermann as Sarah Schorr is confident, courteous and self-contained, a far more attractive young woman than is suggested by Paradox poster. She puts up with the short end of a script which requires her all too often to content herself with simply, "Yes, sir," or "Yes, Judge Biddle." There is, of course, a moment of crisis, necessary for the dramatic tension in the second act. She struggles to suppress an emotional crisis. This moment inconveniences the acerbic Biddle, who request in peremptory fashion that she "describe in a single sentence" the reason for her emotional state. He falls into his own small panic when he realizes that he may be obliged to console her for non-work-related concerns.
The title "Trying" is a clever play on words, evoking both Biddle's judicial background and his difficult mannerisms. Given the relatively static relation between the characters, the amount of anecdote and the dominance of Biddle's commentary, it occurred to me afterward that this piece would serve very effectively as a script for a radio play. Director Gary Payne generally overcomes the limitations of the set, the set-up and the difficult sight lines, and there's a telling shift in Act II as Sarah takes possession of the desk.
The playwright gives Biddle several snaps about Sarah's tendency to split infinitives, rejoinders that will warm the heart of any grammarian, but Biddle fails to reprove Sarah's misuse of the adverb "thankfully." Describing Biddle's miserable private school days amidst a mêlée (rowdy scuffle) of schoolboys, Owen does not use the correct French pronunciation of the term. But that blue-blooded American aristocrat probably had damn little patience for those foreign niceties.