‘Trying’ explores youth, age and points of history in poignant production

By Liz Keill

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The George Street Playhouse presents an engrossing, two-character play based on the real life of Francis Biddle, former Attorney General.

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Biddle, a Harvard educated lawyer, served under Franklin Roosevelt and later Harry Truman during the Nuremberg Tribunal. His memories expand in this taut, beautifully written account of his final year of life. His assistant is a young Canadian woman who has taken this part-time job in Washington, DC.

The playwright, Joanna McClelland Glass, is from Canada and, indeed, did work for Judge Biddle during his final days. The play is poignant and warm, pitting youth against age, male against female, past against present and Ivy League snobbery against public education. There’s plenty of opportunity for conflict during periods of sly, witty exchange, revealing a basic humanity and mutual admiration at the end.

Philip Goodwin and Carly Zien as Francis and Sarah are beautifully paired as they spar, come together and ultimately respect each other. The play takes us on a journey through Biddle’s days at Groton, the exclusive New England boys’ school, his Harvard experience and various appointments by Roosevelt. There are several references to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which he opposed. We hear about the Martin Luther King assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s eulogy and other dramatic moments in history.

The writing is spot-on, clearly reflecting Biddle’s loss of power and prestige as he faces old age. Goodwin is uncanny in his portrayal of a man of dignity who is ultimately overcome by failing health and strength. Zien as Sarah vividly recreates her life in Saskatchewan, a sharp contrast to Biddle’s Ivy League world. Her marriage to an American and her pregnancy are touchstones, somewhat overwhelming to her employer. The playwright notes that Biddle had two regrets at this time in his life: the death of one son at a young age and the death of his father when he was just six years old.  

Jim Jack has directed the production with a superb and fluid sense of timing. Jason Sims’ set design clearly reflects the hayloft of a stable turned into a study, with beamed ceiling, large plate glass window depicting the changing seasons, a handsome Queen Anne desk, volumes of books and other touches. Lighting by Christopher J. Bailey, music and sound designed by Scott Killian and costumes by Esther Arroyo all establish an 1960’s era sense of place.

“Trying” runs through April 8 at the George Street Playhouse’s temporary location at 103 College Farm Road in New Brunswick. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.