There’s an exchange in the heartfelt, humorous and tear-jerker play “Trying,” a true story, during which the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned.
One of the play’s two characters, the aging, weak former attorney general under President Franklin Roosevelt, asks his young secretary if she knows any blacks who’d discuss the tragedy.
“Neither do I,” he responds. “Therein lies the root of the problem. We don’t live with them, we don’t go to school with them, we don’t work with them. One of their poets, Zora Neale Hurston, said, “You can’t know there ‘till you go there.”
What a timely comment these days, when racial tension is gripping the nation following incidents between white officers and black citizens.
But “Trying,” on- stage at the Clague Playhouse’s extremely intimate theater in a gripping, funny, nuanced production through Feb. 1, isn’t about racial disharmony.
At its heart, the taut play spanning 1967 to 1968 in Georgetown, is about our discomfort when those who couldn’t be more different from us come into our lives, particularly those at much younger or older. Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass relates the true story of the time she served as secretary to Francis Biddle.
Roosevelt’s former attorney general and the chief justice of the American Military Tribunal at Nuremberg was at the end of his life at the time.
In the play, he’s an elderly, wise buy cranky individual who played a major role in the nation’s history.
Glass, named Sarah Schorr in the play, is a wide-eyed, green young woman from the Canadian prairie.
Biddle and Schorr are two completely different people, with different thought processes and far apart in age. They could’ve easily gone to their graves never knowing either existed.
As she notes in an introduction in the script, Glass could’ve written about Biddle at the height and prime of his career. It might have worked, but the risk would be writing a history lesson instead of a touching play suffused with drama, pathos, humor and humanity.
Besides, we’re living in a time of discord, anxiety, blame, tragedy and terrorist attacks, due in large part to differences between us. Perhaps we need to be reminded to, as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” would say, climb into others skin and walk around in it...and as a result, see things from others’ point of view.
That is what Biddle and Schorr are “trying” to do as she serves as his secretary during the last year of his life.
Trying. How apropos that Glass titled her play thus. The play was copyrighted in 2005 and 2008, but it’s almost as though she could foreshadow what his nation would experience today and the recent past. We’re living in a trying time, during which we must try to bridge differences and climb into each other’s skin, so to speak. We may even learn we share things in common -- just like Biddle and his secretary have each experienced a hardship and/or tragedy.
For a character-driven play with only two characters, “Trying” is a multi-layered work dealing with themes such as the fragility of life, how one measures success, adaptability to new ways of doing things, cultural differences and caring for the elderly...particulary when and how to convey to such a person, especially one filled with pride and a storied past, that they’re no longer strong or well enough to do what they’ve always done. The fact Sarah becomes pregnant as Biddle is dying is an apt symbol of the life cycle.
There are lines that sound cliched and preachy. But what keeps us from becoming numb to such overused sayings or too depressed is Biddle’s indomitable spirit and the humor Glass injects in just the right places.
“It’s as if my mind excuses itself without my permission,” the curmudgeon says in explaining his forgetfulness, his state lying “somewhere between lucidity and senility.”
Through such humor, and Biddle’s vulnerability and reminiscing, Glass ensures Biddle never becomes a man so bitter that we don’t care for him.
In the Clague Playhouse production, made all the more powerful by the intimate 93-seat thrust theater, a marvelous Robert Hawkes invests every gesture, every mumble, every facial expression, every grimace from his frequent pain, with such nuance and naturalism that you get the feeling Hawkes has, indeed, climbed into Biddle’s skin. The actor ensures we can not only sympathize with Biddle, but his performance reminds us of, for instance, our crusty but lovable grandfather or uncle.
Hawkes, a man with gray hair on the sides and back of his head and a gray mustache, reminds one of actor James Gammon as Lou Brown, the cantankerous manager of the Cleveland Indians in the 1989 movie “Major League.”
Hawkes, speaking in a scratchy voice, hunched forward, gripping his cane firmly planted on the ground while his hand shakes, convincingly portrays a man fighting desperately to cling to what little mental and physical strength... as well as dignity...he has left. Hawkes imbues the man with vulnerability and humanity and a touching realization of his mortality just as he gives Biddle a grouchiness and commanding aura that increases the scratchiness in his voice.
Debbie Jenkins is equally impressive playing a nervous young woman with her hands in her pockets, wearing a troubled expression on her face and portraying a wide-eyed, spirited, can-do secretary with pride of her own.
As played by Jenkins, as much as the character might respect Biddle, she won’t stand by idly while her boss insults her background or suggest he’s superior to her.
Director Douglas Farren ensures the journey from tension and mistrust to fondness unfolds gradually and convincingly. It’s a slow journey, sort of like the one we as a society will need to take to mend wounds.
Ron Newell’s set design of Biddle’s office is compact, yet detailed, with a picture of Roosevelt, various books and period details such as a typewriter and old-fashioned phone. The set, with its dark brown hue, has an historic, old-fashioned character.
Shortcomings? Jenkins sounds too American; her only attempt at a Canadian accent is when she says “sorry,” pronouncing the “o” as though she’s saying “orange.”
In the beginning of the play, the dialogue seems a tad rushed and when Biddle says he has a feeling he’s got a year to live, that line is given little emphasis. If you’re not paying close attention, you’re liable to miss it, yet it’s a line Glass wrote in the script that she distinctly remembers.
From a play standpoint, there’s a moment when Schorr describes her hometown and refers to “miles and miles” of land. Canadians, and people from countries besides the U.S., use the metric system, so she should say “kilometers and kilometers.”
Those negatives aside, credit Glass and the Clague Playhouse with trying -- and widely succeeding -- in delivering a heartfelt, moving evening of theater...one that’ll hopefully move us as a nation to action.
WHEN: Through Feb. 1. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Clague Playhouse, 1371 Clague Road, Westlake
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $16 for adults, $15 for seniors 60 and older and $10 with students who display valid ID.