Fritz Weaver in Trying
 
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Fritz Weaver in Trying
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Veteran actor Fritz Weaver is nothing short of brilliant as Judge Francis Biddle, the man who served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's attorney general, in Joanna McClelland Glass's Trying. Set in 1967-68, this engaging new play follows the 81-year-old Biddle as he writes his memoirs, puts his affairs in order, and deals with a new secretary named Sarah (Kati Brazda). The playwright actually held that position during the year chronicled here, and the events depicted are inspired by her memories of Judge Biddle.

Weaver captures the man's strength of character along with the frailty and uncertainty that he experiences as his mind and body begin to fail him. Biddle suffers lapses during which he cannot remember things he's done or conversations he's had. "It's as if my mind excuses itself without my permission," he states. The actor has a magnetic stage presence, combined with subtle mannerisms that successfully convey a plethora of non-verbal information. Brazda, as Biddle's no-nonsense secretary, is also quite good; she, too, is capable of demonstrating her character's idiosyncrasies and emotional states even when she's not speaking. The performers work well together, making this theatrical two-hander a pleasure to watch. Both have perfect comic timing that brings out the humor in the text.

Glass's play seems at first to be fairly formulaic: A young secretary goes to work for an old curmudgeon, they clash over entrenched traditions versus new ways of doing things but eventually gain respect for one another. However, much more is going on here than is initially apparent. An entertaining, character-driven drama, Trying also functions as theatrical biography. There's plenty of historical information about Biddle's past, from the Nuremberg Trials for which he sat as a judge to regrets over his role in the Japanese-American internment during World War II, all of it seamlessly woven into the narrative. But the play never becomes about such historical details; rather, they are used to offer insight into the character of Judge Biddle.

The play's treatment of the characters' relationship is quite complex. Biddle comes from a distinguished Philadelphia family, went to Harvard, and is a stickler for proper grammar; Sarah hails from Canada, didn't attend an Ivy League college, and resents other young women's easy advancement because they did go to the "right" schools. Yet the class conflict between the two is not as clear-cut as it might seem; Biddle's own position vis-à-vis his social class is complicated by his history of New Deal legal activism. In the play, Biddle has not fully let go of the elitism that is his birthright, and Sarah's reminders of his progressive stances on various issues highlight the man's internal contradictions.

Glass has written lots of snappy dialogue that's brought to vivid life by Weaver and Brazda. Directed by Sandy Shinner, Trying is flawlessly paced. Jeff Bauer has designed an attractive, naturalistic set, and it's well lit by Jacqueline Reid. Carolyn Cristofani's costumes and Andrew Hopson's sound design also contribute to the production's effectiveness. Still, it's Weaver who makes the strongest impression; his performance is definitely not to be missed.