Trying
Photo: Aaron Rumley

Trying

North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach

Written by Joanna McClelland Glass
Directed by David Ellenstein
North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach
Streaming March 24 – April 25, 2021 (extended)

First-day-on-the-job jitters take on new meaning when your boss was a judge at the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals. How a young woman, at the beginning of her life’s journey, finds common ground with a tormented man at the end of a storied career, is earnestly told in “Trying;” a top-notch streaming production by North Coast Rep.

We meet retired Judge Francis Biddle (James Sutorius) in his home office, in Washington, D.C., where he has been burning through secretaries at a fast pace. The octogenarian’s impatience is a product of disorganization, an array of physical maladies and the harsh realization that time is running out on completing his memoir.

Enter 25-year-old secretary Sarah Schorr (Emily Goss), recently married and fresh off the prairie of Saskatchewan. Hired by Biddle’s wife, the judge immediately discounts Sarah owing to her lack of blue blood or an Ivy League education. Biddle’s disdain of Sarah even extends to her use of Speedwriting rather than what he considers the superior Gregg shorthand method. 

What Sarah does have to offer is plenty of “spine,” developed as the daughter of an alcoholic father who crawled into a bottle after losing a prestigious, titled position. Sarah knows a bully when she sees one.

During dictation sessions we learn of Biddle’s ancestral roots that extend to the founding of the nation and his own place in history starting as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. An ardent Republican at the beginning of his career, he later aligns with the Democrats and become U.S. Attorney General under FDR during World War II. The internment of Japanese American during the war proved a crisis of conscience that haunts him the rest of his life. As for Sarah, there are hints of her own personal struggles, including a less-than-satisfactory marriage and a pregnancy that we gather was unplanned this early in the couple’s union.

Despite initial headbutting, Sarah finds creative and devious ways to work around Biddle’s bluster. Over time, the payoff is mutual understanding and respect.  

Actors James Sutorius and Emily Goss are excellent in their roles, and the production shines under the direction of David Ellenstein. Inspiration for the story came from playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’ own experience as Francis Biddle’s personal secretary from 1967-68.

Both acts take place in Biddle’s office, the former hay loft of a stable on an historic Georgetown property. It’s a fitting setting for an old war horse and, courtesy of scenic designer Marty Burnett and prop designer Philip Korth, the space has a dusty attic feel with lopsided framed photos adorning the walls, gravity-defying stacks of books, file folders covering all available surfaces, curling news clippings scattered here and a temperamental floor heater threatening combustion of the accumulated fuel. Era-worthy costumes by Elisa Benzoni are spot on.

Over the course of the pandemic, cinematographer/editor Aaron Rumley has honed the filming of plays to a fine art. This offering is a stellar example.

by Lynne Friedmann

San Diego ,
Lynne Friedmann, based in San Diego, is an award-winning, freelance writer of news, feature articles, and blogs on science, travel, and the arts. Her decades-long passion for theater was sparked as a teen when the Inner City Cultural Center commandeered classroom curricula by bringing classic plays to urban high schools in Los Angeles.