Francis Biddle — once attorney general of the United States, now an elderly retiree who spends his mornings writing his memoirs and answering queries from political scholars — is showing his new secretary, Sarah, around the office in his stately Georgetown home. When he gets to the bathroom, he tells her, “If you’re like all the others, you’ll go in there to cry.”
His tone is matter-of-fact. He knows he’s impossible to deal with. “Perhaps I won’t be like the all the others,” Sarah firmly responds.
And that’s the central conflict, in a nutshell, of this comedic drama, which is currently being presented at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, with direction by Jim Jack. Biddle is monumentally cranky and stubborn. Will he successfully intimidate nice, eager-to-please Sarah, or will Sarah manage to find a way to break through his imposing shell?
It may not sound like a lot. But in the skillful hands of playwright Joanna McClelland Glass, and with finely nuanced acting by Philip Goodwin, as Biddle, and Carly Zien, as Sarah, this scenario translates into an absorbing and ultimately, quite moving theatrical experience. I highly recommend catching this play before it closes on April 8.
Glass wrote “Trying” in 2004, drawing from her own experiences working for Biddle — yes, he’s an actual historical figure — in the 1960s. The play takes place, more specifically, from November 1967 to October 1968, a tumultuous time in United States history. The Vietnam War was raging, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, riots and protests were breaking out all over the place.
Biddle and Sarah sometimes talk about current events, but have plenty of their own issues. Biddle, beset by serious health problems — “my intestines are at war with the rest of me,” he says — and the initial signs of a deteriorating mind, thinks he will die soon, and doesn’t have the time or the inclination for the usual workplace niceties. Sarah, an aspiring writer who grew up in Saskatoon, Canada, is dealing with some personal problems of her own, we learn, while also learning to cope with the world-class curmudgeon who signs her paychecks.
In something of a running joke, Biddle insistently and annoyingly corrects Sarah’s grammar. When she tells him she reads voraciously, for instance, he corrects her, telling her that while one eats voraciously, one reads voluminously.
And so they spar, over the course of the play. But they also grow closer to each other than either probably thought possible. While they initially seem like stereotypes — the grumpy old man and his innocent young employee — we eventually see them as complex, intriguing people.
Goodwin makes it seem natural for Biddle to be ferocious one moment and feeble the next. Zien makes Sarah accommodating, as any young woman in her position would be, but also shows signs of a backbone that make her something of a kindred spirit to Biddle.
Glass makes the point subtly, but “Trying” is not just about an odd couple, thrown together by circumstance and trying to make the best of it. It’s about the world in 1967 and 1968, when the old norms are being challenged and everything is changing, in a sometimes painful but also sometimes uplifting way.
Glass is 81 now — coincidentally the same age that Biddle is, at the start of the play. I hope she gets some satisfaction out of the fact that she was able to create something timeless out of a brief chapter in her life. A chapter that happens to be, now, a half-century in the past.
“Trying” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through April 8; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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