American audiences have a proven fondness for being entertained by grumpy old men. This is evidenced in the Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau movies of that name, and in the galaxy of other shows that lean on our fascination with old farts, from Ebenezer Scrooge to Grampa Simpson.
Perhaps it's the unvarnished candor of these almost-dead people that we find refreshing, as they tell their friends and relatives exactly what they think. And that dynamic is certainly in play in Trying, now at the Clague Playhouse. Although the play is discouragingly predictable, it is elevated by fine performances under the masterful direction of Douglas Farren and a set design that feels more lived-in than most homes you will ever visit.
It helps that this two-person play set in 1967 is based on real people, since playwright Joanna McClelland Glass served as a secretary for the 81-year-old Judge Francis Biddle during his last year of life. The brilliant and accomplished Biddle was a former attorney general under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the lead judge during the post-World War II Nuremberg trials.
Trying is Glass' account of that last year of Biddle's Washington D.C. life, when he raged against his failing body while never losing the ability to nag and criticize his ever-changing assistants. Indeed, when the new secretary Sarah Schorr arrives at his over-the-garage office in Georgetown, Biddle quickly locates the bathroom for her since, "If you're like all the others, you'll go there to cry."
Sarah is the avatar of the playwright, so it's no surprise that this 25-year-old is made of sterner stuff; she's a no-nonsense gal from the outback of Canada. So she hangs in there, helping the old coot write his memoirs while taking Biddle's verbal abuse which is often propelled by a volley of his pet phrases.
The script touches on some conflicts in Sarah's life — an alcoholic father, an evidently tepid marriage, and finally an unexpected pregnancy. But the play is really about Biddle and his battle to stay upright and relevant even as his arthritic hands ache and his finely tuned mind declines to a state "somewhere between lucidity and senility."
The Clague production is a remarkable two-person effort, but not in the way you might imagine. Certainly Debbie Jenkins does a solid job in the somewhat thankless role of Sarah, serving as a backboard for Biddle's witty bank shots and bon mots (to wit, when Biddle finds that someone is being unpleasant, he claims that "...even the flies leave the room."). Jenkins delivers an admirably centered performance, never lapsing into anything resembling sentimentality, a misstep that would torpedo the play.
More than that, though, this play offers a splendid blending of two soaring talents: Robert Hawkes, who plays Biddle, and scenic designer Ron Newell. These are two veterans of theater in Cleveland, and it is an untrammeled joy to see them merge their abilities in this piece.
Newell, a former stage actor who it seems has been building sets since Sophocles set quill to papyrus, has created a set for Trying that is exquisitely detailed and fairly bursting with personality. Instead of just piling books everywhere, an obvious set dressing choice for a man such as Biddle, Newell jams bookshelves not only with books but also with memorabilia: photos of his hero and boss FDR, as well as an odd little statue here and a messy stack of half-used notepads there.
It is a lived-in space, throbbing with the richness of ideas and historical decisions (some good, some not). Hawkes fills that space with an equally detailed performance. Sure, he lands the snarky jokes with spot-on timing, crafting his mini-lectures on the tragedy of split infinitives with Jack Benny-like aplomb. And he conveys the physical challenges of Biddle so subtly and yet so clearly, you feel the affliction in your bones.
But it is in his eyes where Hawkes truly makes his character ring true. They fire up when Biddle senses a bit of backbone in Sarah, and they gleam when he runs yet another grammatical error to ground. Finally, when Biddle knows he is spending his last day in his beloved office, his eyes seem to set behind a horizon of memories.
Yes, this story and its inevitable denouement play out in your head before it happens on stage. But that does nothing to lessen the impact of a thoroughly involving production.
Early in the play, Sarah offers to rub some soothing ointment into the judge's hands, but he is mightily offended by her effrontery. Later, he submits to those ministrations. That moment, and many others, feel as real and immediate as the unmistakable smell of Bengay wafting through the theater.