In the late 1960s, the young Joanna McClelland Glass worked as an assistant to the aging, and ailing, Francis Biddle. It must have been quite an experience: The veteran lawyer was a significant historical figure, having served as FDR’s Attorney General and a judge at the Nuremberg war crime trials. More than three decades later, her relationship with Biddle became the basis of her two-person drama Trying, which runs through April 4 at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. Perhaps Glass waited too long: This disappointingly long-winded, dramatically slack play has a surprisingly generic feel to it. Its insights into the indignities of old age and the cycle of life are less than fresh and only sporadically compelling.
In the first act, by far the stronger of the two, the cantankerous but physically fragile Biddle barks and rages like a dethroned king. He’s unable to balance his checkbook, let alone finish his memoirs; his strong will is no match for his wandering mind. Fortunately, his new secretary Sarah is not easily intimidated. A strong-willed native of the Canadian prairie, she gradually but firmly asserts her authority. Unfortunately, once she does so in a taut showdown at the end of Act One, there is little left to witness but Biddle’s decline. Repeating the same anecdotes or instructions over and over again is a familiar symptom of cognitive decline, but witnessing such behavior at length makes for dreary drama.
Rubicon initially envisioned the play as a vehicle for Harold Gould. When he took ill, Robin Gammell took over the role, and under Jenny Sullivan’s direction, he does so with bracing authority. His Biddle is a true lion in winter, determined to hold onto his dignity and bend the world to his will, even as he is betrayed by his own mind and body. Too bad he doesn’t have a stronger sparring partner; Winslow Corbett’s portrayal of Sarah stays stubbornly on the surface.
The play glancingly alludes to Biddle’s experiences at Nuremberg, and the regrets he feels over his role in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Both of these key chapters of his life have profound moral ramifications, and one would think he’d be ruminating on them as the end grew near. If he had, it might have made for a more interesting play. Instead, Trying is little more than a warm-up for the King Lear one hopes Gammell will some day get the opportunity to perform.