Dallas — From the prairies of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Sarah Schoor finds herself in the presence of the once-powerful Judge Francis Biddle. The never-seen Mrs. Biddle hired 25-year-old Schoor to be the judge’s personal secretary after the 81-year-old bully of a man drove off his last few. What follows is a trial by fire for both Schoor and Biddle. Both must come to terms with each other and themselves in the tight confines of an office above a garage.
Trying, by playwright Joanna McClelland Glass, is a tender tribute to her former employer and the intergenerational friendship that developed between them over the last months of his life. Gene Raye Price directs the show for One Thirty Productions, currently staged at Dallas Public Library/Lochwood Branch’s black box theater.
Judge Francis Biddle had a long, accomplished career, the highlights of which include serving as the private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., stints as Solicitor General and Attorney General in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and then heading the American delegation at the Nuremberg military tribunals.
John S. Davies plays Biddle as a sympathetic curmudgeon. He captures the physical decline of the formidable judge whose fiery spirit is slowly being extinguished. Davies’ natural comic timing and delivery ensures that his character remains likeable. And his nuanced portrayal is nowhere more appreciated than when Biddle unburdens himself of his main regret, his eventual approval of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the mass forced removal and incarceration of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast in 1942.
Barrett Nash, who was last seen in the gut-wrenching small hours, Leos Ensemble’s entry to the 2019 Festival of Independent Theatres, plays personal secretary Sarah Schorr, a slightly fictionalized version of the playwright. Nash conveys the full spectrum of Schorr’s experience, from the employee suffering shell shock from her first day on the job to the dogged caregiver a mere seven months later.
The play requires heavy lifting from both actors. Almost every second between curtain and ovation demands their continuous presence and performance, which makes the judge’s absence in the final scene all the more impactful. Neither disappoints. Nash and Davies pull off the difficult alchemy of making the audience care about the friendship that bridges the more than fifty-year gap in their characters’ ages, not to mention the chasm between their social classes and professional experience.
As with most of One Thirty’s shows, the technical aspects are professional and consistently superb. Rodney Dobbs has designed a believable set that creates the impression that we’re in the office of someone of Biddle’s stature while still fitting into the library’s black box space. The props, designed by Marty Van Kleeck, and costumes, by Bruce R. Coleman, are suitable for the late 1960s setting, down to the once ubiquitous carbon paper next to every typewriter. Stewart Mikkelsen’s lighting design is appropriately understated, while Marco Salinas’ sound design includes a lush cinematic soundtrack between scenes.
Price’s direction turns the six scenes of the two-act play into a fugue or sorts, which aptly mirrors the script’s repetition and structure. The work takes on the tone of well-polished contrapoint. Trying has a sweeping political biography and two headstrong characters who figure out how to make their working relationship, well, work. It’s a wonder that Trying hasn’t been turned into a film yet. Until it is, your best bet is to catch the One Thirty staging.