by Joanna Glass
Playhouse Theatre
April 9-30

Canadian 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.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Sunday April 24, 2005 9:33 PM
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