Judge Francis Biddle is known to many of us as a scion of old Philadelphia. His family numbers among the first Americans and our grandparents, and great grandparents, remember him as the lead judge in the Nuremburg Trials after World War Two. Many of us know little else about him, and Joanna McClelland Glass’ play “Trying,” at the George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, gives us a vignette of a man who, while born to privilege, used that privilege to make life better for most of us, even while making it somewhat difficult for those closest to him.
We first meet “Sarah with an ‘h’” (Carly Zien), as she is shivering in a garret. This is not the scene of “La Bohème,” but rather Judge Biddle’s garage office. And step-thump, step-thump, step-thump, step, thumphere comes the Judge (Philip Goodwin). When we meet Judge Biddle, he is at the irascibly ripe age of 82. This is not a secret: he speaks of it often and he is very conscious of sand running out in his hourglass. Sarah is a fresh young populist from the prairies of Canada and there is a frictive spark from the beginning of their relationship. Will her steel be a match for his immovable sense of self? You’ll need to see the play to find out.
Part of the joy of a great play is watching the actors spin out the layers of human relationships. Jim Jack’s direction puts the frictive sparks and the dry tinder in the places they need to be. There is no drama without conflict, and here there are plenty of both. Jason Simms’ set is mid-Century perfection and the passage of time is evident from the liberal use of the window. The seasons are all too short, and we are reminded of that. Scott Killian’s sound design sets the tone for our emotions, and Esther Arroyo’s costumes are spot on, with Sarah providing much needed splashes of color. Christopher Bailey’s lighting is soft where it needs to be and the actors themselves light up the stage as well.
This play is very cerebral and has a number of gifts for the observantSarah’s consistent good heart and strong will, Judge Biddle’s oh-so-gradual warming to Sarah’s firmness and practicality, and logic. He cannot deny her brain, heart and fortitude. Their clear admiration for one another through the work they do, and the trust that they build is truly beautiful. I found myself turning over portions of Zien’s and Goodwin’s performances like gems to admire. Zien’s Canadian accent is perfect and we can see the almost physical battle between Sarah’s thorough respect of elders and her frustration at this impossible old man. Goodwin’s Biddle moves with the age of his wisdomcareful steps and tried and true aphorisms. In the second act, when he actually allows her to assist him in getting up, and when Sarah performs a task he initially insisted he alone do, we know that they have become a unit.
The run of this magnificent play ends April 8, so here’s the ideal Spring gift for those you love. Be prepared to give a gift certificate to your favorite bookstore as well, you’ll want more about and from these two true characters. Get your tickets now at www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org