Actor James Whitmore, once described as a living wax museum, adds Judge Francis Biddle to his resume of precise impersonations in Joanna McClelland Glass’ charming two-hander “Trying.” With its Washington setting and historical themes, this portrait of an FDR administration official and Philadelphia aristocrat is a natural for Ford’s Theater, and this sleek production fully exploits that opportunity.
In addition to its D.C. engagement, the play is on skeds this season at Buffalo’s Studio Arena, San Diego’s Old Globe, the Asolo Theater Company in Sarasota, Fla., and Philly’s Walnut Street Theater.
Little did Glass know back in 1967 that a secretarial position assisting a certain frail 81-year-old Georgetown resident would spawn a gem of a play. The gentleman was a descendant of American founding fathers, a former attorney general during the New Deal and chief American judge at the Nuremburg Trials. He was also cantankerous and resentful of his eroding faculties, and defiant against bridging any cultural chasms with this homespun girl from rural Canada.
Her frank but gentle reflection of the relationship focuses on allowing two strong yet engaging personalities to shine through. Amid the diatribes we see attachments being formed in incremental doses, a nod here and a glance there between the judge and an assistant named Sarah. Under Gus Kaikkonen’s precise direction, the play adroitly sidesteps any maudlin trappings even as it plods its way to a predictable finale.
Whitmore fits into this role with the ease one would expect of a legend on familiar turf. After all, he has previously appeared at Ford’s in solo performances as Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt. He most recently played opposite Robert Prosky in a 2000 revival of “Inherit the Wind” that was cut short for medical reasons.
Here the irascible coot shuffles unsteadily around the stage, pausing to chide his new secretary for her split infinitives or to deliver an impromptu sermon. Whitmore carefully tempers the tirades with a keen ability to draw laughs from almost any subtle gesture.
The plucky assistant is played with great warmth and stubbornness by Karron Graves, last seen here in the lead role of “Intimations for Saxophone” at Arena Stage. Graves delivers all the requisite qualities of sincerity, defiance, practicality and intelligence in just the right measure, peaking in the dramatic scene in which she lectures her boss about inequality.
It’s all packaged nicely in Jeff Bauer’s Spartan office setting dominated by two desks. Scene changes are nicely punctuated by sound designer Tony Angelini’s use of period music and news clips.