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Thursday, June 13, 2024

“Trying” Meets High Praise at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Lauded by audiences and critics alike twenty years ago on its Off-Broadway premiere, "Trying," a play by Joanna McClelland Glass, continues to get revived in regional theatres across the United States.

Aging. The topic is not uncommon in a play. But Canadian-born playwright and novelist Joanna McClelland Glass’ drama, Trying, about aging and frail Attorney General Francis Biddle, who served under President Franklin Roosevelt, drew a younger audience on opening night on May 24 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in Downtown West Palm Beach.

The two-character play premiered twenty years ago at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. After an extended run, it opened off-Broadway at the Promenade Theater in New York City’s Upper West Side from 2004 to 2005.

Based on the author’s experience during 1967-1968 when she worked for Francis Biddle [Dennis Creaghan] at his home in Washington D.C., the play is about a young Canadian woman, Sarah Schorr [Kelly McCready], who gets hired as his personal assistant, after a line of many young assistants who never survived his sharply cantankerous tongue.

Then comes Sarah. And the old Philadelphia aristocrat meets his match.

Glass’s story is packed with tender moments and plenty of comedic punches. In the first scene, the two characters battle on uncommon ground. Biddle, not one to take orders from a girl, pushes Sarah’s buttons, but she’s not one to let others, not even the internationally known Chief Judge of the Nuremberg trials, push her around.

The play is set in 1967 in Biddle’s office in Georgetown. Biddle is 81 years old, and amidst his messy desk, he’s trying to put his life in order, seeing the end of all things knocking on his door. To add salt to his wounds, he struggles with failing health and can only work in the mornings from 9 am to 12 Noon. Knowing all this, his wife finds him a new personal secretary named Sarah, who is just 25 years old and full of energy to get her job done—mainly letters and a halfway-finished memoir.

Left to right – Dennis Creaghan and Kelly McCready in Trying by Joanna McClelland Glass (Photo by Tim Stepien)

Biddle and Sarah are two battleships navigating in vastly different directions and sparks fly off when they collide. The two struggle to find a way to communicate. When one raises his voice, the other one bites her tongue so as not to lose her cool, to no avail. Until something personal happens in Sarah’s life that turns her world upside down, Biddle, in totally unfamiliar territory, does his best to appease her. Finally, he probes, “Is it about that female thing?” Looking very sad and profoundly lonely, she says, “Yes, the absence of it.”

After her pregnancy is revealed, something magical happens. With every dictation, letter, and memoir note, the old aristocrat and the young woman slowly but surely find common ground, and their lives unexpectedly and forever influence each other.

Glass’s story reminds us that we all have an aging person in our lives—a parent, grandparent, boss, or friend. And if you’re in a dramatically different place in life, you may have a younger person starting a new life or career with lots of energy but perhaps not enough knowledge or experience. But there’s always something you can learn from them, too.

The beauty of Trying is the meaning of the action itself, which promises to produce excellent and everlasting fruit from every side. In this play, Biddle and Sarah leave their audience with lots to think about. What is the meaning of life? As Biddle says, you’re born, you work, you play, and then you die. How will we be remembered? For our careers, for the last thing we did?

In these trying times, could it be for our love and kindness to others?

Other issues and themes are dramatically weaved through the plot: racism, generational differences, and judgment. Questions are raised, such as whether we judge people for the way they are dressed and the places they’re from, whether we judge people for the way they speak and what they believe in or stand for.

Not all are answered, but the seeds are planted.

Trying is directed by producing artistic director William Hayes and produced by Stephen Brown and Jaime Stern. As the last production of the season, they couldn’t have selected a better show.

Glass’s play is a richly scripted, comic, and touching drama. The actors give brilliant performances as they reveal some profound truths about the many different forms of love and respect.

Trying is playing until June 9, 2024. To buy tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or call the box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is at 201 Clematis Street in West Palm Beach.

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