American history, Canuck-Yankee cultural differences and musings about mortality intertwine quietly — a little too quietly — in Joanna McClelland Glass’ play “Trying” at San Diego’s Old Globe.
The Canadian playwright’s autobiographical script focuses on a period in her 20s when she worked for retired judge Francis Biddle, best known as the chief American justice at the Nuremberg trials.
The story begins near the end of Biddle’s life. It’s 1967 and the ailing judge, now 81, struggles to finish a memoir and take care of other matters, both professional and personal, before his health fails him completely.
Sarah Schorr, 25, is the latest in a long and unsuccessful line of personal secretaries, all of whom have disappointed Biddle in some way. One burned down his office, he claims (probably true; Alan Muraoka’s set, an above-the-garage office at Biddle’s Georgetown home, features a few soot-stained books).
The first scene is Sarah’s job interview. Biddle, frail but feisty, is the epitome of the cranky old coot. He berates her for placing the coffee in the wrong spot, mishandling his mail and splitting her infinitives — all before he’s agreed to hire her. Biddle is also sensitive about his fading capabilities, refusing Sarah’s offers of physical assistance. “I may be an invalid but I’m not entirely in-valid,” he mutters.
At the beginning it looks as if Sarah wants the job so desperately that she’ll meekly submit to his grouchiness and bullying.
But soon enough we find out that Sarah has spirit. A proud working-class woman from the Saskatchewan prairies, she’s a self-described “bugger for work.” When Biddle, a Philadelphia blueblood, asks Sarah about her educational background, her defensiveness comes through: “I’m not one of those pleated-plaid Ivy girls,” she says huffily.
Glass’ play unfolds along predictable lines, and its themes are age-old. We know there’ll be tears, crises and a gradual warming of feelings as Biddle’s health declines and the power dynamic of the relationship shifts from old to young.
Director Richard Seer’s staging does little to energize the fundamentally static quality of the script. There are too many dead spots between the revelations, and Muraoka’s set restricts the blocking to limited circular patterns.
The performers do as well as they can with underdeveloped parts. Jonathan McMurtry captures the clarity of mind and steeliness of backbone that characterized the brilliant Judge Biddle; it shines through the many infirmities of age. His performance is, however, overly mannered at times, lacking urgency in those moments where emotion needs to dominate.
As Sarah, Christine Marie Brown has mastered a minor theatrical skill: a perfect Canadian accent. Brown gives surprising life to a rather thankless and colorless role, hinting with body language at the fortitude that a hard life has created.
“Trying” contains an added bonus for students of American history: Biddle’s fascinating career is revealed in some detail. Unfortunately, good history lessons don’t necessarily make good theater.