By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun
3:29 PM EST, February 21, 2013
Colonial Players offers a gem in historical and dramatic substance in its current production of Joanna McClelland Glass' "Trying," continuing through March 2 in Annapolis.
This two-person "memory play" is set in 1967 and finds Judge Francis Biddle, 81, a nonfiction character, trying to finish his memoirs with assistance from newly hired Canadian secretary Sarah Schorr, 25. She has been forced on Biddle by his wife, and the two spend the play learning to adjust to each other.
Glass waited until she was in her 60s to write of her experiences as secretary to Biddle, the Harvard-educated Philadelphia patrician who became her mentor. The title, "Trying," reflects Sarah's constant striving to meet job requirements as secretary to Biddle — and may also refer to Biddle's comment on their differences: "We can't help but find each other extremely trying."
Glass tells much of Biddle's history through his letters and reminiscences. In his 20s, Biddle served as personal secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He shared a privileged background with Franklin D. Roosevelt, both having attended the tony Groton School.
Roosevelt and Biddle also shared concerns for workers' rights, influencing FDR to appoint Biddle as U.S. solicitor general and later U.S. attorney general. In 1945, Biddle was appointed principal American judge at the Nuremberg trials, where Nazi leaders were tried for crimes against humanity.
A staunch defender of FDR's New Deal, Biddle had strong reservations on the internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, as ordered by FDR after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a decision Biddle took part in but deeply regretted through his life.
Director Darice Clewell brings out many facets and subtleties of this thought-provoking drama. An experienced actor herself, Clewell encouraged her two actors to transform reams of dialogue into engaging conversation that flows naturally.
The director is equally skilled at smoothly creating seamless scene changes, many involving speedy costume changes as well as marked changes in attitude.
In her director's notes, Clewell writes, "I am grateful for the opportunity to tell this story of two cultures colliding and then collaborating, of age and youth at odds with one another, of chill turning to warmth, and of winter yielding to spring. ... It is funny and touching, and reminds us all that no matter how accomplished we are, how rich or poor, we belong to each other."
In "Bringing 'Trying' to the Stage" — a forum hosted by Colonial Players after the Feb. 17 matinee — Clewell described excursions to the Biddle home in Georgetown, where access was given to personal papers that could be replicated. The Georgetown University Library helped Clewell to obtain copies of the books that were part of Biddle's home library.
Set designers Laurie Nolan and Heather Quinn used, directly from the Biddle estate, reproductions of family papers and incorporated colors and furnishings similar to those in the home. JoAnn Gidos acquired a working Dictaphone of the era, which was refurbished to look as if it was newly purchased for Biddle.
Items such as a globe, typewriter, carafe and Thermos are authentic to the 1960s, and these small touches add greatly to the sense of authenticity.
Karen Grim, as Sarah, has shown versatility in her Colonial Players role as independent Evelyn in Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things." Next came her sensitive portrayal of Amy in "Little Women," and in "Spitfire Grill" she defined the role of heroine Percy Talbott.
Here, Grim is a young secretary motivated by a strong work ethic who gradually gains understanding of her aging boss. The young Canadian signals her silent dialogue in body language that often describes checked anger and frustration.
Michael Dunlop has his role of a lifetime as the once-powerful Biddle, now a frail and disorganized octogenarian who realizes he functions "somewhere between lucidity and senility."
Dunlop's Biddle fascinates in articulate flashes of former brilliance, ranting about his "succubus" housekeeper's determination to destroy him or expressing his displeasure at misplaced adverbs, split infinitives and other things that offend him.
Biddle's ferocious insulting of Sarah reflects his anger at memory loss and diminishing powers that prevent completion of his memoirs. Recognition of Sarah's reliability and tenacity persuade Biddle, reluctantly, to turn over responsibility for record keeping and routine correspondence.
Dunlop allows the audience to glimpse a troubled humanitarian who regrets the denial of citizenship rights to wartime Japanese-Americans, but he also shares other instances where Biddle remains on the right side of history.
Together, Dunlop and Grim bring a rare reality to the theater experience.
The Colonial Players is located at 108 East St. in Annapolis. Purchase tickets online at thecolonialplayers.org or phone the box office at 410-268-2422.
An added word about a convenience offered by Colonial Players' partnership with eCruiser, which shuttles patrons from parking garages to the theater. The Players suggests parking free at State Garage at Calvert Street and calling 443-481-2422 for pickup and transportation to and from the theater. We tried this service and highly recommend it.
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