Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass has a story to tell. In her 20s, she was hired by former Attorney General Francis Biddle to help him finish his memoirs. That in itself could make for a fascinating tale, but the real story comes from building a relationship with someone who was once one of the most powerful men in the world. The two engaged in a battle of wits with the young woman more than holding her own. Her story is told in Trying, the latest production at George Street Playhouse.
The play stars Carly Zien (best known for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as Sarah and Philip Goodwin (Broadway roles include Tartuffe, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The School for Scandal) as Judge Francis Biddle. It is directed by Jim Jack, who previous helmed the wonderful production of My Name Is Asher Lev at George Street in 2016.
Sarah is 25, recently married, and hired as the secretary for the former Attorney General under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She views this as a tremendous opportunity. Judge Biddle is 82 years old, believes he is in the last year of his life, and understands himself as one of the most difficult people to work for in the world.
“That’s the bathroom over there,” explains Judge Biddle on Sarah’s first day. “If you’re like all the others, you’ll go in there to cry.”
The first day was a complete train wreck. While Sarah got along splendidly with Biddle’s wife, the Judge makes it clear he prefers to work with older, more experienced secretaries.
“What did she say was the primary requisite of the job?” asked the Judge.
“She said spine,” replied Sarah.
Although the Judge tries his best to have Sarah give up immediately, he soon learns that she is different from the others who previously worked for him. Sarah comes from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where she learned how to defend herself from the attacks directed by an alcoholic father who was also a bully. She clearly has no intentions on running to the bathroom to cry. In fact, she tells the Judge that if she should ever cry, she would do it at her desk in clear view.
Sarah presses him on the first day for a list of what her duties will entail. He continually avoids the question. When his wife calls to see how the meeting is going, he replies, “It’s going badly.”
In addition to being an Attorney General, Francis Biddle was appointed by President Truman to be a judge at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He is a man with key insights to history that many - including his publisher - eagerly await to hear. Biddle is falling farther and farther behind in submitting chapters to his publisher.
“You’ll find I function - when I function at all - somewhere between lucidity and senility,” he tells Sarah.
His work schedule is nine to noon each day, working in an office above his garage in Georgetown. The beautiful set by Jason Simms recreates a charming study. A window opens for breezes and shows stormy weather (rain and snow) outside. A small tree changes with the seasons. A staircase and two old floor heaters help show the deterioration of Biddle’s body over time.
In many ways, the pairing of Judge Biddle and Sarah is somewhat akin to a version of The Odd Couple based on a class structure. On one side you have the Judge whose family tree includes Edmund Randolph (the first United States Attorney General and seventh Governor of Virginia) and a man educated at Harvard University, while, on the other side, is Sarah - largely a self-taught woman who prides herself on working hard. Well versed in the arts and poetry, she is quick to provide examples of artists who did not come from the Ivy League.
Sarah pushes him to work on the memoirs and helps straighten out his finances. Biddle’s mind has been slipping for years. He repeats conversations he’s already had and has made mistakes with bill payments and bank deposits. Often, he will have a lapse of memory followed shortly thereafter with a complete recollection - one that hints at the brilliant mind lying inside.
Some of his lapses are both touching and revealing. After attempting to phone a government official he long knew, he realized after scanning his phone directory that the person’s name had been crossed out - a signal that the person had died. He then remembered attending the funeral. Upon further review of the directory, he realized that all of the names in the “B” section were crossed out and he would be next to go.
Initially, Judge Biddle refuses Sarah’s help in every way. Her experience in comforting her aging grandmother is of no concern to him. He does not want her to touch him, make phone calls for him, or pressure him to work on the memoirs. But she refuses to give up.
“Hell hath no fury like Sarah in her persistent mode,” he acknowledges. “You are not pliable, you are the most trying individual.”
Sarah is truly an amazing female character. Even as a young woman, she is not afraid to go head to head with someone who once confronted criminal world leaders. Eventually, the Judge begins to recognize that his secretary, despite her lack of an Ivy education, is every bit his match. In this battle of wits, he is on surprisingly even ground. It’s a position he has rarely found himself. While going through a series of subservient secretaries, he had convinced himself that was what he wanted. With Sarah, he found what he needed.
Philip Goodwin is terrific as Judge Biddle, wonderfully portraying the physical attributes of a man whose body is failing him. Throughout the play, his mental attributes are clearly spotlighted. He is a stickler for proper grammar and despises the use of split infinitives. He can appear to be mean and insensitive, but his fondness, appreciation, and need for Sarah grows over time. Goodwin captures all of that in an exceptional performance.
Carly Zien is outstanding as Sarah. Her face often shows the pain and wonder of someone helping to record history directly from the source. This is one of the best roles for a woman I have seen in quite some time. Even in the late 1960s, Sarah is a strong woman who is unafraid to tell her boss, “There’s only so much shit I will eat.” Her character is a mix of wit, intelligence, and strength. And Zien, herself, is funny, strong, and sassy as she brings the playwright’s personal story to light.
Director Jim Jack has once again steered an amazing production. This is only his second mainstage production at George Street, but will surely be one of many.
Trying runs until April 8th at George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, NJ. The play is roughly two hours long with one 15 minute intermission. Funny, sad, and very moving, Trying is highly recommended!
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.