Passing of the Torch

'Trying' at Live Theatre Workshop takes a gentle look at generational friction

The Rosetta Stone was engraved in three ancient languages in 196 B.C., but the very first line of the inscription reads: "What is wrong with this new generation?"

That's not precisely true, but it's the essence of a joke delivered in Live Theatre Workshop's new production, Trying, a 2004 play by Joanna McClelland Glass. And in some ways, that joke is the essence of the play itself.

After all, who among us has not, at some point, found ourselves at one end or the other of that very question? Set in the turbulent late '60s, when intergenerational warfare was at a peak, Trying reminds us that some of what shocks us in the younger generation may not be so serious in the long run. And it reiterates that goodness—and common ground—can be found in the most disparate people.

Trying is not the catchiest title, but it takes on different meanings throughout the play. To begin with, one of the play's two characters is the real-life Francis Biddle, a scion of Philadelphia high society who served as attorney general under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biddle began his service shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and later was the primary American judge during the war-crimes trials at Nuremberg.

In the play, it's 1967, and Biddle is trying to endure old age—and trying to understand the many changes in the world. Mark Twain was still alive when he was younger; now he has to deal with Betty Friedan and her Feminine Mystique.

He's also trying to adjust to the presence of Sarah Schorr, his new young secretary. Schorr is the latest in a string of assistants Biddle claims were unsatisfactory, but who in reality have quit because Biddle himself is, well, extraordinarily trying. Demanding, snobbish and occasionally bullying, Biddle tests every last bit of Schorr's resolve. Gradually, however, a friendship begins to grow between the old man and the young woman.

Schorr is also based on a real-life character: playwright Glass herself. The Canadian-born writer often draws on her own life for material, particularly her childhood on the unforgiving plains of Saskatchewan. But in this case, she looks back on her young adulthood, when she worked as a secretary for Biddle at the end of his life.

While the playwright suggests the darker emotions of both characters—whether it's her doubts about her own marriage, or Biddle's guilt over authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans—she never probes the pain too deeply. Even the most difficult exchanges are handled with wry humor and warmth.

The talented Elizabeth Leadon-Sonnenfelt plays Schorr, but the role doesn't allow her to shine as much as other recent parts have. Schorr is essentially the straight woman in an intergenerational comedy duo, providing eloquent (even when silent) reactions to each of Biddle's outrageous statements.

That's not to say that Leadon-Sonnenfelt's performance is flat. Each moment is flavored with frustration, humor, doubt or tenderness, suggesting Schorr's rich emotional life. But the secretary is an observer and a catalyst, not a star.

The star is Biddle, and John Mills fills his shoes with aplomb. As a former lawyer, Biddle is only happy when he hears himself speak, which means that Mills has his work cut out for him. His character blusters incessantly for most of the play, and Glass' dialogue captures the cadences of a grumpy senior. Stories and bits of conversation come back around, again and again.

Mills really brings the character to three-dimensional life. He charges doggedly forward, conjuring up thoughts and habits developed over an imagined lifetime of experience. In the moments when Mills' Biddle realizes his memory and body are failing him, his diatribes fall away and reveal a frail, vulnerable man.

One delightful running gag involves Biddle's intolerance for bad grammar. You might find yourself feeling like the target of his ire, and scan your memory for rules on verb usage and split infinitives. ("At Groton, we weren't even allowed to use infinitives," Biddle declares.) On the other hand, the old judge unexpectedly eschews the word "disappear" in favor of its saucier spoonerism, "pisadeer."

Richard and Amanda Gremel have done some of their best work in creating the set, which depicts the office Biddle has over his garage in Washington, D.C. The two-tone green wall paint and the battered, lived-in furniture depict both time and place, and help establish a history for the man who's spent his life working there.

Linda Trout's costume designs also help bring the characters to life. She's put Biddle in a series of brown wool sweaters, brown jackets and brown slacks that seem static even as they change. Schorr's brightly colored, vintage sweaters and blouses bring color—and life—into the office.

Director Sabian Trout doesn't try to impose a bold fingerprint on the proceedings; instead, she's focused on helping the actors develop their characters. While this is not a play that whizzes by, Trout keeps it moving at a consistent pace.

Trying is not, in the end, a masterpiece of dramatic literature; the narrative arc is predictable, and it falls short in exploring the issues the characters are facing. Then again, it's not trying to be a master work. Rather, it's an invitation to engage in collective reminiscence about intergenerational relationships, to laugh as we recognize our complaints about the young people rising up, and to accept the passing of the torch.

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