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By Martin F. Kohn
He, an aristocratic, impossibly cantankerous old man nearing the end of an illustrious life and acutely aware of it, has already burned through any number of secretaries as he tries to complete his memoirs and keep up with his correspondence.
She, a young married woman whose quiet manner of speaking belies a toughness tempered by family circumstances and childhood winters on the Canadian prairie, is relatively new to town, Washington, D.C., and has signed on as the latest in the great man's string of secretaries.
Joanna McClelland Glass' semi-autobiographical play Trying is the story of her experiences, in 1967 and 1968, as secretary to Judge Francis Biddle, attorney general under FDR and chief American judge at the Nuremberg Trials. In the play Judge Biddle is called Judge Biddle, but if it were truly autobiographical, Glass wouldn't have called the character based on herself Sarah Schorr.
"Sarah-with-an-h," as Judge Biddle likes to say, which might conjure thoughts of another spunky, self-reliant Canadian, Anne-with-an-e of Green Gables. (Glass, by the way, says such an idea never crossed her mind.)
It may have the feel of sharply observed nonfiction but, shaped and structured by a masterful playwright some 40 years after the incidents that inspired it, Trying is a funny, poignant and meaningful drama, one of the best two-character plays of the still young 21st Century.
David Regal's staging for The Theatre Company gives it the production it deserves, thanks in large part to the performance of Arthur Beer as Judge Biddle. Beer has never been better and, therefore, Trying has never been funnier, at least in its first act where there is room for levity. Not that the play has the heartbeat of a comedy but Judge Biddle's crotchets can be humorously outlandish, and Beer and Regal zero in on them.
Take the judge's abhorrence of split infinitives ("A thorn in my side"), his occasional tendency to repeat himself, or a gentility that, when grumbling about certain feminists, won't allow him to say "bra." Instead, he says, after much hesitation, "upper underwear."
These are not huge jokes, but Beer mines them for honest laughter, not by punching them up but with meticulously calibrated turns: a thinning of voice, a crinkling of face.
Besides the fact that Judge Biddle quickly comes to appreciate Sarah as a worthy verbal sparring partner, he and she will, in the course of things, find much common ground and develop a great affection for one another, beginning with a mutual affection for the poetry of e.e. cummings.
Despite the differences in their age and status, the judge and the secretary must always be seen as equals on some level, but as sometimes happens in Theatre Company productions, in which professional and undergraduate actors share the stage, the student isn't up to the standards of the master. However, Anne C. DiIorio, who plays Sarah, does grow more at ease as the play progresses. It might help if she were to face the audience a bit more.
Melinda Pacha's set, Biddle's upstairs office in a former stable behind the main house, is filled with old books and old furniture, the stuff of somebody who doesn't have to impress anyone. The judge may not have to, but Beer and Trying are impressive indeed.
UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit. Friday-Sunday through April 25. Tickets: $13-$15. For information: 313-993-3270 or http://theatre.udmercy.edu.
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