In the final year of Francis Biddle's life, the then-unknown Joanna Glass took a job as his personal assistant and secretary. Decades later, Glass would transform her memories of that time into Trying, the play currently enjoying its SoFla premier at Palm Beach Dramaworks. If Trying is to be believed, working for Biddle in his dying days was a bitch of a gig. By the time Joanna stepped into Biddle's world, the one-time attorney general and famed Nuremberg judge was a mean-spirited, senile mess. Alfred Knopf was screaming for his memoirs, and his desk was disappearing beneath a mountain of unanswered correspondence. He would pay some bills three or four times a month and neglect to pay others at all, and his only pleasure in life was baiting and berating the unfortunate, hapless creatures who wandered into his employ.
But Glass came to the rescue, God bless her. And from the withered stump of Lost Generation manhood that was Biddle, Glass managed to extract the few nuggets of wisdom that had gone unmolested by age and weariness before the man died of heart failure on October 4, 1968. She ordered his affairs, penetrated his defenses, and ultimately liberated the gooey warm center that still lived beneath his crunchy bluster. Just before passing, Biddle gave Glass a benediction that, if Glass is playing straight with us, ennobled her youthful efforts to become a serious writer and a person of substance.
That Glass is a serious writer is beyond question. She's got a lengthy back catalog containing many a smart take on the manifold dilemmas of human communication (witness the crossword sequence in her wonderful If We Are Women), and the writing of Trying is a thing to behold. It's not easy keeping a two-person show interesting for two hours when one of the characters is too senile to do much more than endlessly regurgitate the small store of riffs still squawking from his dusty synapses, and when the other is so over-the-top fake-professional in her dealings with her dotty old employer that, in the first two scenes, you'd think the alien surge of any real emotion would cause her head to explode on her shoulders.
Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach
Presented through February 4. Call 561-514-4042, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.com.
But Glass manages, offering us an exercise in dramatic dialectic that's satisfying in every way, save morally. Which brings us to the question of "substance."
Biddle was a member of that generation of Americans whose Ivy League best-and-brightest had a hand in virtually every event that came to shape the psychic, cultural, and economic contours of the latter half of the 20th Century. Though most are gone now, I remember what those men looked like. They were extraordinarily proud and extraordinarily angered by their inability to be the men they had been, when epic struggles raged across the globe and the future was up for grabs to whomever might have the determination to claim it, no matter how virtuous or ignoble their intentions. Maybe it's a cliché now, but those are the men who saved the world, laid the strong foundations of the American century, and ultimately, after many wrong turns, ensured that the future stood a chance of being a more humane, just place than the past. Biddle was one of those guys: a patrician who willed himself into being as a man of the people when hearing of the plight of the Pennsylvania miners; whose role in the creation of Japanese internment camps he'd regret, and vocally denounce, for the rest of his life; a man of deep, broad learning, possessed of a work ethic no longer extant in the country's living generations.
Glass says she feels affection for him. If that's true, she shouldn't have created a play in which he is shown only at his weakest and most infirm, in those few moments at the end of his life during which she could realistically portray her younger self as his moral or intellectual equal.
But bad morals don't necessarily equal bad drama. Palm Beach Dramaworks always plays for high stakes transcendence or devastation, depending on their mood and in Trying, they give us both.
Director Nanique Gheridian builds her characters organically, so that the basically repellent nature of each when they first set foot to stage is undone imperceptibly; by the time they begin radiating the warmth that will shape the play's denouement, it feels more like a byproduct of nature than a product of Glass' plot development.
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Sarah Schorr, Glass' fictionalized version of herself, is inhabited by Christine Carroll with exactly the same patient, gentle affection that you see in the best social workers at high-end nursing homes. She'll put up with a lot when Biddle reams her out for using speedwriting instead of John Gregg's shorthand system from 1888; when he all but calls her a slut when she offers to rub Ben-Gay into his hands; when he declares her an intellectual midget for her failure to know the word inter-vivos. When he finally crosses the line and causes her to declare, channeling E.E. Cummings, "there is some shit I will not eat," she is not truly indulging her anger, though angry she must be. Instead, she understands that she's speaking to a child, and her restraint is saintly. You want to give her a hug.
Until you remember that this is actually Glass' perception of her sweet and saintly self. Then you want to puke.
Peter Haig is magnetic as always, one of only a handful of actors in SoFla who could imbue a character as willfully obstinate as Glass' Francis Biddle with such unaffected grace and humor. Haig uses laughter to open doors into bottomless realms of confusion and regret. When he summons Cummings for his own purposes, talking about the death of his 7-year-old son, Garrison, in 1930, it feels as though he alone has traveled far enough to understand Cummings' words and is reporting back some elusive truth that those who have not traversed a century and continents of feeling and moral struggle could never understand. These are the lines: "King Christ, the world is all aleak/And life preservers there are none/and waves which only he may walk/Who dares to call himself a man."
It's cryptic, but that's the case whenever Biddle tries to get something important across. The difficulty he has in assembling his deepest thoughts into a meaningful pattern is the same difficulty Glass must have sensed when working for him, and it's nothing more than the pedestrian problem faced by any two people who try to communicate something of real value: Sometimes, words don't cut it. In the end, Christine Carroll and Peter Haig have to transcend them. And they do.