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Theater review: ‘Trying’ at the Rubicon Theatre Company

March 18, 2010 |  9:00 pm

400.TRYING RUBICON - 1 Amid the swelling ranks of budget-friendly two-handers about elderly curmudgeons and optimistic young adults who teach each other poignant life lessons, what makes "Trying" by Joanna McClelland Glass stand out from the pack is the historical specificity and eloquence with which Glass gives dramatic shape to her personal story.

The play is drawn from Glass' experience as a secretary to Judge Francis Biddle, an aging "radical patrician" who served as attorney general during the FDR administration and had been one of the judges at the Nuremberg trials.

It's 1967, and sweeping social change intrudes into the disordered, book-lined attic office of the Georgetown home where the 81-year-old Biddle (Robin Gammell) wages a fierce battle to keep time – and his own mortality – at bay for one more year.

It's a struggle he's rapidly losing. "The exit sign is flashing over the door," he barks at Glass' 25-year-old stand-in, a recently married transplant from the Canadian prairie named Sarah Schorr. The latest in a succession of assistants to the ill-tempered, sharp-tongued judge, Sarah's biggest challenge is simply "Trying" to stay in the job as her boss fluctuates between lucidity and senility.

Capturing the multi-generational tensions between them, Jenny Sullivan's staging for Rubicon Theatre Company adds a shrewd familial layer with the casting of real-life father and daughter Gammell and Corbett, both accomplished stage performers.

Under Biddle's scathing ridicule and outrageous taunts, Corbett's cherubic, corn-fed Sarah believably finds her way to the all-important job requirement: spine. Gammell was clearly struggling with flu on opening night – not entirely a liability with an ailing character, but the pacing suffered; flashes of the rage and bitterness in the dying embers of Biddle's once-towering intellect suggested what the piece can be with the actor back on his game.

Confining the piece to her observations during the last year of Biddle's life, playwright Glass weaves a deeply felt narrative but also limits its scope. Allusions to the Martin Luther King assassination, the conviction of Nazi war criminals, even Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis – amount to little more than historical name-dropping. Only the WWII internment of Japanese Americans – which Biddle authorized in the name of "military necessity" – carries real dramatic weight as a wound of shame that still tears at his soul.

– Philip Brandes

"Trying," Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 4. $39-59. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Winslow Corbett and Robin Gammell. Credit: Jeanne Tanner.