In 1967, a young Canadian immigrant found part-time employment as a secretary to lawyer Francis Biddle in Georgetown, Washington D.C. Doddering to a degree and growing more frail as the “exit sign flashed” before him, Biddle was also a man of staggering judicial experience.
Sarah Shore was a self-assured autodidact that didn’t let her lack of formal education leave her vulnerable to intimidation even by someone as formidable as Biddle, a former attorney general to Franklin Roosevelt. Their seven-month relationship is the focus of Bravo Theatre’s production of “Trying,” written by Joanna Glass, based on her true experience as secretary to Biddle, and directed by Bernadette Jones.
Biddle, no stranger to scorching the souls of every secretary who has crossed his home-office threshold, is played by the impressive Roger Larson – last seen at lakeside in the title role of Bravo’s “Visiting Mr. Green.” Larson is an actor of stature, able to evoke a fierce exterior while exposing the natural humanizing that can come with old age. His Biddle still has his wits about him, enabling him to respond to the numerous inquires about his experiences, not just as Roosevelt’s A.G, but also his time spent as the U.S. judge at the Nuremberg Trials. These fascinating tidbits are shared with the audience mostly through responding to reporters’ and biographers’ questions from the outside world. Inside the tidy office, however, Biddle is more interested in correcting Sarah’s grammatical errors than in sharing wisdom garnered from his exceptional work experience.
Allison Plamondon, a Canadian actress visiting Lakeside via New York, presents Sarah as a rather buttoned-up young woman, though intent on not succumbing to her predecessors’ fate of tears and flight from the rough exterior of Biddle’s old-school excesses. She isn’t there to tame the beast per se, but she is able to meet him head on by relying on her wits. Even when Sarah does crack – be it ever so slightly – Plamondon doesn’t let us see much of her interior conflict to the detriment of the story. Her Sarah hails from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, harsh prairie country where a no-nonsense approach to life is instilled in its people no matter where they might emigrate. As the character states, a Saskatoon spring cannot be discussed without first acknowledging its icy, severe winter. Surviving that, along with a bully of a father, adds to Sarah’s grit when it comes to facing down Biddle.
However, Larson’s aging Biddle feels somewhat more alive than his keen assistant, who bestows the title “Sir” upon him relentlessly and never with even a hint of irony that may have revealed more of her character’s strength.
Drama is based on cause and effect, characters sometimes need to be a bit exaggerated for purposes of uncovering each one’s strengths and weaknesses and how those traits can both bruise and enlighten those whose paths we cross. “Trying” does just that – attempting to arrive at the moments when we humans are transformed by one another. And, at times, such as when Biddle and Sarah discuss favorite poets or best book titles, the alchemy occurs.
Perhaps because Glass based this play on her actual life there is an abruptness to the effects the characters have on each other. Biddle does succumb to Sarah’s homespun cures and she, in turn, learns to finish his thoughts in letters and interviews, yet their actions don’t seem completely organic to the play’s timeline. And there were missed opportunities where we would have benefited to know more about the characters’ inner lives, moments of vulnerability that could have revealed so much about these two and their commonality despite age and background, adding more poignancy. Ultimately, “Trying” succeeds in presenting a unique world inhabited by uncompromising characters in their beliefs to defend the needy while accepting inevitable changes within their personal orbits.
Director Jones has several Bravo productions under her belt, most recently directing the all-female cast of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” She skillfully maneuvers her two characters fairly seamlessly around an unchanging set, well designed by Alan Marsh. Without the benefit of a proper stage, producer Jayme Littlejohn and company have created a believable world of a dying man’s last gasps at working, even managing to dig up a 1960s-era typewriter.
Ken Yakiwchuk is the assistant director, David Wharff production manager and Trish Conner stage manager. Emma Berg-Apton is responsible for sound design and operation that have key moments in the production. Lighting design and operation is by David Wharff. The set was constructed by Wharff, Marsh, David Bryen, Norman Whelpdale, Mike Morton, Jeff Dieterich and Niels Peterson. Mary Anne Molinari is the prop master, and Micheline Stepko is in charge of costumes. The set decoration is by Micheline Stepko and Walter Stepko. Wendy Hamblin handled backstage duties.