by Joanna Glass
expatriate Joanna McClelland Glass spent the years 1967-68 in
Washington, D.C. as secretary to Francis Biddle, former U.S.
Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt and chief American
judge at the Nuremberg trials. Trying is Glass’ theatrical
account of that relationship, a two-hander in which 25 year old
Sarah Schorr from Saskatoon goes to work for the sickly, crotchety
octogenarian who has declared this to be his last year on earth.
Unambitious and without a plot to speak of, the play tracks
a year in the life of a classic odd couple: the irascible American
blue-blood, old-fashioned, pedantic, and mildly misogynist, and
the thoroughly modern young Canadian prairie populist who refuses
to be intimidated or bullied. Theirs is a charming relationship
though, buoyed by a witty script and given a flawless production
by director Brian Richmond.
The Playhouse has built its publicity campaign around Thea
Gill, star of the cult TV hit, Queer
as Folk. But this show belongs
to veteran actor Alan Scarfe, whose portrayal of Biddle, the
wounded lion in winter, is absolutely note-perfect.
Biddle essentially carries on a monologue, interrupting Sarah
when she tries to say more than “Yessir.” And what
a pleasure it is just listening to the gravelly music of Scarfe’s
rich, resonant voice. Biddle is self-obsessed, condescending,
and frequently forgetful. He makes irrational demands on Sarah
and corrects her split infinitives. But he’s also wonderfully
eloquent and blessed with nearly all the play’s best lines.
“She’s a well balanced woman usually,“ he says of his wife, “but
on those occasions when she’s surly, the flies leave the room.”
In one marvellous passage Biddle thinks back through a line
of e.e.cummings’ poetry to the death of his young son four
decades earlier, at the same time trying to alleviate the pain
in his arthritic hands. As eloquent in body as he is in voice,
Scarfe communicates the man’s emotional depth and physical
frustration in a beautifully orchestrated few seconds of performance.
Sarah does get in some good Canadian zingers. A self-professed “bugger
for work,” she knows of only one way to get the reluctant
Biddle organized: “we lace the skates and hit the ice.” With
her blond flip and shortish A-line dresses, Gill looks like a
young Mary Tyler Moore. As the play moves from winter to spring
and Biddle’s life-force ebbs away, Sarah comes to embody
the future, and Gill holds up her end of that bargain very well.
The production is immensely enhanced by Pam Johnson’s
gasp-inducing set, a vaulted, woody, 1830s Georgetown carriage
house, and Tim Matheson’s grainy black-and-white newsreels,
projected during scene changes through a large rear window. They
give us a history of the U.S. from the FDR era through the Kennedys
and Martin Luther King, the momentous, chaotic backdrop against
which this small, compelling human drama plays itself out.