The naivete of youth may have a heavy foot on the gas pedal. Old age, with a shorter road to travel to its end, may pump the brake and look in the rearview more than needed. This is an issue in today’s politics, as we hear from some Democratic candidates about “passing the torch” to a new generation. But it is also an ongoing story from generation to generation. And a topic that is examined in the play “Trying,” which is currently at the Langhorne Players in Newtown.
“Trying” is a play by Joanna McClelland Glass about Francis Biddle at 81 years of age and his new secretary/assistant Sarah, who is 25 years old. The year is 1967, and the story is primarily autobiographical as Sarah parallels the playwright’s experience of working for Mr. Biddle. Francis Biddle had been the attorney general under Franklin Roosevelt and the Chief Judge for America at the Nuremberg trials. (As a historical aside, three other countries sat in judgement at Nuremberg with the U.S. — France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union). At his age, Mr. Biddle is a cantankerous, seemingly overly intellectual snob, who is going through assistants like Kleenex. Sarah has been hired by his wife. Sarah is originally Canadian. It is felt that Canadians are very nice with a lot more patience than Americans, or at least hopefully.
The play has its funny and poignant moments, and is reminiscent of “Driving Miss Daisy,” without race being an issue. There still is a class, age and health issue that gets reviewed within these two hours in this two-person play. Judge Biddle comes from a well-to-do Philadelphia family. He has gone to the best schools and, when Sarah comes to interview for the position at the beginning of the play, it is evident that if you did not go to an Ivy League school, you are inferior to those who have. She bridles at that idea in the restrained manner that perhaps only a young Canadian girl could muster. But the irascible feistiness of her boss is met with a cooler but just as strong steadfastness. Sarah has a great deal of Saskatchewan grit.
If there is a criticism to be made of this play, it is only one of expectation upon knowing the background of Francis Biddle. Though there are quite a few asides noting his exceptional life, the play does not focus on his illustrious past, but is a character study of two very different kind of people at very different points in their lives. We know who he was, but his relationship with FDR and Nuremberg Trials could be absent from the play, and it would still primarily be the same play. One of the few moments that his real-life history gets addressed does contain one of the better lines.
Judge Biddle did regret his role in Japanese interment camps. In that regard and in regard to civil rights and the poor, he said to Sarah: “I’ve come to right a wrong… that’s why God created Democrats.”
The central role of Judge Biddle needs a charismatic actor with the chops to show the waning health that can come to even the most active octogenarian. No one could be better than Hans Peters, who takes us on the journey of the judge who becomes more dependent on his secretary, not just physically but emotionally, as they become true friends. By Act Two with another year passing, he slows down and seems not as tall. Mr. Peters has a mesmerizing voice reminiscent of Henry Fonda in its tone and cadence. Perhaps that is how he gets away with being blisteringly caustic, but still somehow attractive. As an example of his petty rancor, he is a stickler for good grammar and will not suffer a split infinitive or, for that matter, the misuse of words such as “bring” for “take.” Yet, Sarah endures.
Samantha Gage Otto brings the needed calm serenity to Sarah that is the female yin to this judges’s male yang. She is lovely in the role, which is less splashy than the showboat judge. She becomes his anchor as he starts to drift. Otto is able to show the growing, loving strength of Sarah as she adjusts her role from employee to confidant and friend.
Kudos to director Maurizio Giammarco who, no doubt, helped these remarkable actors in fleshing out their characters to bring us a glimpse of two people who come into their own at two different seasons of their lives. Sarah at age 25 is typical of Sixties youth in that she would rather be honest than polite, if polite means hiding truth. She says to Judge Biddle, as he is facing his waning abilities due to his age, that she understands what he is going through. Her understanding is not based from experience, of course. He responds, “I have been young, but you have never been old.”
Audiences will be charmed. “Trying” tries and mostly succeeds in explaining and bridging the gap between young and old, between then and now. Judge Biddle, as mentioned before, is from Philadelphia and is buried 25 miles away in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. A lovely valentine to the man, however, is at the Spring Garden Mill/Langhorne Players Theater.
The show continues through June 27, and tickets are available online.