By Heather Rosen
Some people seem larger than life. One of those people is Francis Beverley Biddle of the prominent Philadelphia Biddle family, who not only left a legacy, but changed the course of history both for the better and for the worse. But Trying, by playwright Joanna McClelland Glass, reminds us that we are all human, and equally subject to illness, frailty and forgetfulness as we age, and that whether we are willing to admit it or not, we will all likely have regrets in life. This is a beautiful story about the last months of Judge Biddle’s life, from the perspective of Glass, who served as the last personal secretary to this former lawyer, judge, and US Attorney General.
The show not only pays tribute to Judge Biddle’s many accomplishments, it shares his great regrets and shows us the human side of Judge Biddle that most people probably never knew. It was this side that Glass, through her character Sarah Schorr (expertly played by Amanda Forstrom,) was eventually able to connect with, despite the fact that she and Biddle (convincingly portrayed by Scott Sedar) were from very different generations, genders, and social classes. And through Glass’s loving story, the audience feels a connection with this great man too.
The story begins when 82-year-old Judge Biddle first meets Schorr, his new personal secretary. We are in Judge Biddle’s home office, and it is 1967. There are law books, file cabinets, his desk and a smaller desk for his secretary, and a coffee table and a globe that are not put to much use. There is also a cot that Judge Biddle rests on when he is feeling weak. He knows that he is ill and suspects that the end of his life is near. The lighting on stage is low, and both he and Schorr comment that the room is cold. Judge Biddle adjusts the heaters on both sides of the stage. The music played throughout the show is similarly cold and slow, almost sad.
First Schorr enters the scene. She is in her 20s and full of energy and optimism. She has been hired to assist Judge Biddle with correspondence and personal bookkeeping, but she loves to work and seeks out other opportunities to help him. Judge Biddle is pessimistic that the arrangement will work out. He strongly suspects that like the other secretaries who came to work for him, “Sarah-with-an-H” wouldn’t last very long. The two seem to be polar opposites.
Judge Biddle knows that he cannot tolerate someone who does not do things his way and cannot get up to speed quickly. He repeatedly lets Schorr know that he is a Harvard Law graduate and he is very accomplished. And he often criticizes Schorr, who comes from a working class family and did not attend college.
“I’m trying,” is uttered by both parties on several occasions. Schorr tries to meet Judge Biddle’s lofty expectations, and Judge Biddle reluctantly tries out some of the things that Schorr suggests will help him. It is also clear that the days Schorr spent working for Judge Biddle were trying for both due to Judge Biddle’s fastidious nature and lack of patience … coupled with his declining health and failing memory.
Eventually, the two characters find a common language through poetry, and they begin to gain respect for one another. Now they are able to talk about personal issues, including regrets, and we find out that even this great man had great regrets and also great personal pain. It is at this point that I felt like we started to know him and see him as someone who was not so different than us. As one of Trying’s producers, Sandy Laeser, points out on the back cover of the program, the bridge that Judge Biddle and Schorr were able to form despite their many differences might help all of us all learn how to build bridges and respect others who are different from us.
In the last scene, the lights become brighter, perhaps signaling a resolution, or hope for the future. Schorr is not only very comfortable in the office, but she has adopted some of Judge Biddle’s language. Trying is about two people who begin in less than optimal circumstances and are changed for the better by one another… and it is lovely to watch. And former Philadelphians will really enjoy learning more about this great man, whose family name still appears throughout the city of brotherly love.
Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.