How can the spunky 25-year-old secretary Sarah Schorr (Carly Zien) hold on to her job while standing up to the verbal slings and arrows shot at her by the cantankerous 81-year-old Judge Francis Biddle (Philip Goodwin)? After all, she is the latest in a string of secretaries presumably deemed unacceptable by the semi-retired judge.
The answer comes soon enough in playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’ sweet, winning semi-autobiographical play that follows the sometimes rocky daily working relationship between the self-educated young woman and the erudite judge. Judge Biddle served as the U.S. attorney general under Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as being the chief American judge at the Nuremburg trials.
Biddle’s most distinguishing characteristic at this point in his life is that of a stiff-necked, autocratic, and highly opinionated curmudgeon. Goodwin takes on the challenge and instills a snappish charm into the brilliant Biddle’s seemingly relentless harping and complaining. A Broadway, off-Broadway, and regional theater veteran, Goodwin never lets Biddle’s prevailing petulance distract him from a performance that also reflects the anguish he feels with the loss of his competence in this the last year of his life.
Zien, making an impressive George Street Playhouse debut, beautifully steers Sarah’s tentativeness into assertiveness over the play’s eight-month period during the mid-1960s. As such she is acutely sensitive to Biddle’s own diagnosis of himself as living a state somewhere between “lucidity and senility.” The play wisely does not place a lot of emphasis on Sarah’s life but it is given a little added weight by allowing Sarah’s marital problems to momentarily offset the play’s focus on Biddle’s neediness and declining health.
Basically a memory play drawn from the author’s own experiences, “Trying” mainly reveals how the Yale-educated to-the-manor-born Philadelphian slowly warms up to and gradually learns to respect a less privileged woman from Saskatchewan, Canada. The title doesn’t come out of the courtroom but rather from the two of them “trying” to make their testy relationship productive. Biddle’s testy nature becomes an amusing catalyst for Sarah. Much of the play’s pleasure comes from seeing how she determinedly brings about order to the chaos that she has found herself immersed in.
During the process, much of which is propelled by Biddle’s condescension and argumentative nature, sections of Biddle’s memoirs are read. One of the many things that come to light includes how he regrets not having made a stronger case against the internment of Japanese in the United States during World War II. This is but one reason director Jim Jack has no trouble making a strong case for keeping this intelligent, involving, and always amusing play a dramatic staple.
Although the action is confined to Biddle’s private retreat/office atop the garage behind his home in Washington, D.C., set designer Jason Simms has made it visually impressive by including a large bay window through which falling snow and heavy rains can be seen. It is enhanced by Christopher J. Bailey’s excellent lighting design. “Trying” had a successful and highly praised run off-Broadway in 2004 and has proven itself a dramatic mainstay over the years in regional theaters.
Trying, George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick. Through April 8, $15 to $65. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.