Francis Biddle would seem to be an odd historical figure to write a play about. He served as attorney general in the 1940s and was the primary American judge during the Nuremberg trials, but is hardly a household name.
Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass worked as a secretary for him in 1967 and 1968, though, and was inspired to write the two-character play, “Trying,” based on her experiences. It premiered in 2004, and is now being presented at Cape May Stage through Nov. 15. (For tickets, visit CapeMayStage.org.) Directed by Tony nominee Austin Pendleton and featuring Howard Green as Biddle and Allison Plamondon as his secretary, Sarah Schorr, it’s quite absorbing, with every word and gesture adding up to a complex study of two very different people, thrown together by life’s circumstances, and the unlikely bond that grows between them.
The entire play takes place in Biddle’s office, over the course of eight or nine months. In the opening scene, Sarah arrives for her first day on the job. Biddle looks startled when she arrives: She’s invading his space, he feels, and he does everything possible to let her know he’s going to be tough on her. “If you’re like all the others, you’ll go in there to cry,” he says, when he shows her the bathroom.
He makes sneering references to her background — she grew up on a farm in Saskatoon, though she now aspires to be a writer — and her use of speed-writing instead of the time-honored Gregg shorthand method when she takes dictation. He also abhors her grammar and syntax. After she tells him she’s a voracious reader, he corrects her: “One reads voluminously, and eats voraciously.”
The world is changing — there are occasional references to current events, including the presidential campaign and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Biddle is clearly a fossil, so old-fashioned he can’t even bring himself to say “bra” (he goes with “upper underwear” instead).
He’s also quite ill, and in the early stages of senility. Sarah is forced to become something of a caretaker, as well as a taskmaster — he still has important work to do, but would rather not bother with it, most of the time.
It’s like a dance, back and forth, between these two. She calls him on his snobbery; he concedes the point, reluctantly. They bond over their shared love of E.E. Cummings. She brings in a dictation machine, and though he is initially skeptical, he does give it a try. She does end up crying in the bathroom, but not for any reason you might anticipate.
The title of “Trying” has a triple meaning. There’s trying, in the sense of Biddle being difficult to get along with, and trying, in a nod to Biddle’s career in the field of law. But there’s also the most basic meaning, which is, these people are trying hard to get along with each other.
Glass’ story is sad and sweet, though it never crosses the line into the maudlin or sentimental. Similarly, Green and Plamondon’s portrayals are far from caricatures of a curmudgeonly geezer and his exasperated young employee. All this feels like something that really could have happened. Which makes sense, because it’s based on a tiny bit of history that Glass was able to witness firsthand.