Theater Review: TRYING (North Coast Rep)

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by Tony Frankel on April 2, 2021

in Theater-Regional,Virtual


The eagerness of youth; the decay of old age; cynicism in a world of injustice; literature; mortality; idealism; FDR; and timeless quotes. All of these wrapped in the contentious years of 1967 and ’68 is what you’ll find in Trying, based on playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’s own experiences as a 25-year-old woman from Saskatoon working as a secretary for the great, cantankerous Francis Biddle — attorney general under FDR and later a Nuremberg judge. Their year-long friendship takes place in an office above his garage in Georgetown, piled with his career’s detritus. He has had several secretaries and all have quit since Biddle is an impossible old curmudgeon.

Overall, it’s a slight bio-drama, but it is given heft by North Coast Rep’s filmed production. The camera work by Aaron Rumley is spot on for this on-demand theater offering, but it’s odd how these outings are starting to feel like Playhouse 90, the 1950s and ’60s weekly series of hour-and-a-half-long dramas. Combined with the internet, network TV and streaming services, it’s beginning to blur one’s attention — and it simply is not a replacement for live theater — although it costs practically the same as such at the Rep. This show should suit North Coast’s core base of retirees, but the play, a bits-and-pieces two-hander drama stuffed with fascinating facts anchored by two captivating characters, really has has nowhere to go.

It begins near the end of Biddle’s life in 1967 when he is 81 and ailing: He knows he’s going to die within a year, we know he’s going to die at the end of the play, so the entire affair — grumpy old liberal blue-blood patrician is won over by his kind-hearted secretary’s gumption — is predictable and somewhat bumpy. He is struggling to finish his life story and to take care of both professional and personal matters before his health fails him completely. So McClelland’s context a bit stale: He’ll die at the end and she’ll carry on, forever changed by their brief connection.

Given that, the evening never lagged, per se. Front and center is the smartly unseen guidance of director David Ellenstein, who allows his canny actors — Emily Goss as the secretary, Sarah, and James Sutorius as Biddle — to work their magic on Marty Burnett’s realistic set, bolstered by Philip Korth’s props. Goss, especially, injects enough complexity and stalwart vulnerability to make her nearly one-dimensional role most watchable. But the play is a little trying.

photos by Aaron Rumley

North Coast Rep in Solano Beach (San Diego)
streaming on through April 18, 2021
for tickets ($35-$54), visit North Coast Rep

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joanna McClelland Glass April 3, 2021 at 4:06 am

Ah, well. A playwright is a blotter that absorbs and absorbs and hopes to survive the Russian Roulette of critics. TRYING is alive today because a critic at the Chicago Sun Times said it deserved a Pulitzer. That critic also said the play was a modern day LEAR.
Even I thought that was a bit much.


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