Theatre Preview: Trying to succeed

By Hoang-Mai Hong

What a drag it is growing old,” the Rolling Stones once astutely observed. This observation sums up 82 year old Judge Francis Biddle’s situation in the eyes of his new secretary, Sarah Schorr, in Theatre Calgary’s latest production, Trying.

Based on playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’ real life experience as the secretary of the former attorney general under Franklin Douglas Roosevelt, and one of the chief judges of the Nuremberg trials. Trying sees Judge Biddle, in what he proclaims to be the “last year of his life,” while working on his memoirs. He’s grown conservative with his age and for comic relief throughout the play, he engages in typical geezer talk, like complaining endlessly about the younger generation, especially their annoying frequent use of split infinitives and expounding on the troubles with Bengay.

What isn’t so funny is the way the judge is ageing. Portrayed effectively by Frank Moore, the old judge struggles with crippling arthritis, and is barely able to climb the stairs to his office, nor last through his office hours from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. without lying down. To combat the effects of ageing, he clings to the things he can, such as turning on the heaters the right way, correcting syntax and grammar proving he has his faculties in line and opening the mail with a letter opener given to his mother from Henry James.

Newbie secretary Sarah, a good old Saskatchewan farm girl, commits herself to “lace up and hit the ice” and to put up with the curmudgeonly and somewhat sexist old judge, who points out to her on her first day, “If you need to cry like all the others, that’s the bathroom!” Sarah’s character nicely offsets Judge Biddle. She is one of many women breaking away from the home at the time, determined and hopeful to make it in the world as a woman. In doing so, she reminds him of what he once was: idealistic, rebellious in betraying his Republican background and becoming a Democrat to fight for the little man. Gradually, the barriers between the two characters disappear and they begin to get along.

Vanessa Holmes, as Sarah, and Moore portray their characters successfully. Holmes is believable as the wide eyed, prairie girl turned working woman, and Moore, a not-so-old actor backs up the layers of make-up with feeling, has the booming chops of a commanding judge and yields a posh old crone D.C. accent to go along with it.

Like most Theatre Calgary productions, Trying is a crowd pleaser. There’s nothing too controversial or ground-breaking here, just a simple plot about two initially different people, trying to get along while also trying each other’s nerves. It’s also a touching story involving a great man at the end of his life, who, despite his accomplishments, is deeply affected by losing a child and losing a father, both very early on.

The story and performances are backed by a simple, but well written script, leaving Trying a good mix of comedy as well as tragedy. The play ends off with enough hope to send audiences home with more happy thoughts and with less dread of growing old.

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