Trying at George Street Playhouse
The word “trying” has many definitions. It can mean testing the limits of, as in “trying one’s patience.” It can be coming to grips with the unfamiliar; it can mean attempting; or it could mean reaching a judgment, as when a case is tried in court. All of these meanings are displayed in Trying, currently being presented by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, now in its temporary space at Rutgers University while its new building is being constructed.
Trying, written by Joanna McClelland Glass, is the story of the relationship created between an elderly jurist who served at the national level and his newly hired assistant. It is based on the real-life working relationship between the younger Glass and Judge Francis Biddle, attorney general for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and chief American judge at the Nuremburg Trials after World War II, during the last year of Biddle’s life.
The play is a gently amusing comedy, mining the irascibility and fear of failing physical and mental abilities on the part of the 82-year-old judge and the youthful enthusiasm and frustration of the 26-year-old assistant. While it relies a good deal on early exposition to fill in the backgrounds of both characters, and at times leans too heavily on the side of assistant Sarah Schorr (playwright Glass’ fictional stand-in), its humor and not-overdone streak of sentimentality is a refreshing change of pace after George Street’s last presentation, American Hero.
Philip Goodwin, though seeming to play a bit heavily on the judge’s physical and mental failings at the play’s start, comes forth with a touching characterization of Biddle as a man bound by class and tradition having to make the effort to find common ground with his assistant. But Carly Zien’s portrayal of Sarah is the heart of the show. Over the space of the year she spends with Biddle she grows from spunky but unsure Canadian prairie girl to self-assured woman standing stand toe-to-toe with her ill-tempered employer. It is the growth of mutual respect between Biddle and Sarah that this play manages to capture. Zien is exceptional in her performance.
Jason Simms’ set provides the perfect backdrop, a functional but not sterile office above Biddle’s garage with a large window enabling us to see a full year’s change of seasons during the course of the play. Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting had subtle touches that unobtrusively enhanced the action. However, composer and sound designer Scott Killian’s music, while good, struck me as a little too elegiac in tone and a little too loud in volume to fit the show.
Trying succeeds in its portrayal of two people from vastly different backgrounds forming a relationship based on trust and respect. It also reminds its audience of Francis Biddle’s remarkably overlooked accomplishments as a public servant over many decades without resorting to being a staged history lesson. Playwright Glass has created an affectionate and respect-filled memory play of her time with Biddle. I can recommend it as a well-spent evening in the theatre.
Trying is presented by the George Street Playhouse on the Cook College campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick through April 8, 2018. For tickets and information, visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.