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By Daniel Skora
The Theatre Company of the University of Detroit Mercy is currently presenting Trying, Joanna McClelland Glass' play about a man of letters and a distinguished public servant now in his declining years, and a young woman who has just been hired as his secretary. Trying is one of those titles that doesn't say a whole lot to those unfamiliar with the show, but it doesn't take very long into it to appreciate the double-edged meaning it has for its two characters.
To Sarah Schorr (Anne C. Dilorio), Canadian born and recent defector from a position as an advertising copywriter, "trying" is the effort she has to make in order for her employer to accept her not only as a person qualified for the position, but also as an equal in the game of life. To Judge Frances Biddle (Arthur Beer), "trying" is probably the most appropriately kind word that can be used to describe his cantankerous, demanding personality.
Their relationship begins as a game of cat and mouse, with Biddle so used to having his hires break down in tears and go running for the door that he expects this current one to be no different. The Judge is plagued by the afflictions of old age, has a stack of correspondence that needs to be answered, and is having difficulty completing his memoirs.
In everyday matters, the earliest onset of a dementia appears to be setting in; in matters literary and historical, he is as sharp as a tack. He expects orders to be followed unequivocally: two lumps of sugar in the coffee, hands off the controls to the heater, and don't ever, not in speech nor in writing, split an infinitive.
Sarah, however, is determined to make the best of her job. She is self-assured, congenial and sympathetic. She tolerates the Judge's idiosyncrasies and attempts to show him a better way of handling his affairs. Before long, she is questioning the way he does things and tactfully challenging his behavior.
Glass' play mirrors her real-life experiences when she worked for the historical Francis Biddle in the 1960s. Biddle was attorney general of the United States during the Second World War and served as primary American judge during the Nuremberg trials.
The play deals with a number of contrasting elements: youth versus old age; the differences in culture resulting from age disparity; status and privilege against a common background; a Canadian experience versus an American one. But it's the differences between the contentious personality of Biddle and the even-tempered Schorr that infuse the play with a lightheartedness and poignancy that make it transcend time and place.
At the heart of the Theatre Company's production is the performance of Arthur Beer. Biddle and Beer seem like a match made on Mt. Olympus, or from wherever it is that the theater gods bestow their gifts. Spouting and sputtering his way through the lion's share of the play's dialogue and creating a memorable character in the process, he fashions the Judge as a larger-than-life figure keenly aware of his body's failings. Beer's work here is that of an actor who has mastered his craft. His performance should not be missed.
Dilorio, a junior UDM theater major, has an insurmountable task in attempting to keep pace with the overwhelming Beer, and appears to hold back and let him do his thing. At times her reticence seems just right for the part of a young woman who does not want to be overly pushy on a new job working for an important personage. At other times, when Schorr should be asserting herself to her boss, one would expect an uptick of emotion from Dilorio and a bit more bite in her delivery. All in all, it's a minor quibble over a most enjoyable show.
Trying is directed by David Regal. Set design (the loft of a stable that has been converted into Biddle's office) and costumes are by Melinda Pacha.
Trying runs through April 25. Theatre Company performances take place at the Marygrove College Theatre located at 8425 W. McNichols, Detroit. Tickets by calling 313-993-3270. Information is available online at http://theatre.udmercy.edu or www.facebook.com/udmtheatre. A special talkback featuring the author will take place after the Sunday, April 18, 2 p.m. performance.
Reprinted with permission of the New Monitor, April 15, 2010
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