Trying, written by Joanna McClellan Glass, was inspired by the Canadian playwright’s relationship with Judge Francis Biddle – private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Attorney General under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the primary American judge at the Nuremberg Trials – in his last declining year. The Milwaukee Chamber Theater appropriately places this contemplative show at the mid-point of its season; it regards both a cold seasonal time and the final season of a long life. And while neither riveting drama nor sparkling comedy dominates this two-person play, it seemed a crowd-pleaser for the history buffs and older audience members alike.
Biddle is performed deftly by veteran actor Richard Halverson. As many of us with aging grandparents know, it is painful, physically and psychically, to face failing health with so much unfinished business. Halverson dodders about the stage, wringing his arthritic hands and falling into fogs. By contrast, MCT newcomer Molly Rhode portrays Sarah Schorr, a polite Saskatoon prairie girl who has followed her new husband to the American East Coast and seeks part-time work as secretary to the irascible judge. Rhode serves well enough as author Glass’s character double, but the role as it’s written or as it’s played lacks something until the final act, when Schorr transforms.
Perhaps it is because of the character’s context in history (the play is set in 1967; Glass tried Trying as a one-act play in 1971 but didn’t finish it until 2004) that the neophyte secretary isn’t played with more confidence or will. A forward-era character wouldn’t have put up with the irritating elderly man’s demands, no matter his historical importance. Certainly a woman of the progressive late sixties, though, could have given Biddle a fighting spirit rather than waiting a year to gain his trust. Then again, perhaps the difficulty lies in perceiving Biddle as having any menace or domination at his age. It’s easy to understand why his previous secretaries quit rather than take a stand. He doesn’t seem worth fighting over.
The play at its most interesting lets us watch as the old man copes with his failing mind and body to the point of tearful frustration. At one point, he bemoans that he “may be an invalid, but he’s not yet in-valid.” There’s a subplot about Schorr’s determination to be a writer that is missing from this particular production, which may have made balanced the roles more equally. Otherwise it was a thoughtful, quiet play that braces us for the winter and prepares us for the re-birth of spring. VS
Trying continues now through Dec. 16 at the Milwaukee Chamber Theater, 158 North Broadway in the Third Ward; 414-291-7800, www.chamber-theater.com. Pre- and post-talkback discussions with the cast and director coincide with four upcoming shows (see showtimes on website) and a pre-performance ‘ViewPoints’ presentation will be given by legal insider and professor Dr. Michael P. Waxman before the Nov. 28 show.