- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

Judge Francis Biddle (James Whitmore) was a law secretary for Oliver Wendell Holmes, served as attorney general under Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a Truman-appointed chief U.S. judge at the Nuremberg Trials. He’s one of the Philadelphia Biddles, you know, the Main Line family who were among America’s earliest settlers, who bought land from William Penn that became a little place called New Jersey.

Judge Biddle stared down Hermann Goering, fought tooth and nail for the rights of Pennsylvania coal miners, and defied President Roosevelt on the issue of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Yet, in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Trying,” it is his secretary Sarah (Karron Graves), a brassy prairie girl from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who turns Biddle from a brilliant, irascible witness to world history to a pussycat grandpa in a cardigan sweater. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy” with a dictaphone.

Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass was Judge Biddle’s secretary during 1967-1968, the last year of his life, helping the elderly and severely ill man put his memoirs and other papers in order. Set in the converted office of Judge Biddle’s Georgetown home, “Trying” recaptures with nostalgia-tinged affection that life-changing year, when youthful energy went up against a grand, fading life force.

Judge Biddle was a fascinating man of deep convictions, a public servant in the best sense of the term. His ancestor was George Washington’s first attorney general, and he name-drops luminaries from the political and cultural worlds — Henry James and E.E. Cummings, not to mention Truman, Roosevelt, and Felix Frankfurter — with patrician ease.

The anecdotes are heady — a virtual Who’s Who of the 20th century — but you get little sense of what Judge Biddle was like when he was in his prime, other than a lifelong stickler for grammar. (With practically his dying breath, he is railing against the use of split infinitives.) The problem is that much of the information about Judge Biddle is conveyed through Sarah, who is saddled with delivering encyclopedic exposition about her boss’s life to his face. Even though Judge Biddle has memory lapses, one would assume he already is acquainted with the high points of his career.

With three long scenes — each quite similar to the others — in each act, “Trying” suffers from both repetition and a glacial pace — especially in the second act, when the play settles into a sitcom format, with the perky Sarah trading barbs with the crabby Judge Biddle until it is time for a pat moment of contrived closeness, such as when she starts rubbing BenGay into his arthritic hands.

However, director Gus Kaikkonen enlivens “Trying” with two energetic performances by Mr. Whitmore and Miss Graves. Although Mr. Whitmore’s catalog of wheezes, coughs and winces are more alarming than comic, he paints a touching and bold portrait of an aging man determined to hold onto his dignity and acumen until death.

Judge Biddle snaps at one point that he has forgotten in one year what Sarah learned in a lifetime, and listening to him quote Shakespeare (“King John” at that), the Rosetta Stone, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Proust, is a testament to both his and Mr. Whitmore’s formidable powers of recall.

Miss Graves’ constant smoothing of her garments becomes distracting and gimmicky after a while, but you do admire Sarah’s sunny belligerence and persistence. She’s a Canuck version of Mary Richards.

At nearly three hours, “Trying” can be a trial, but to see the octogenarian Mr. Whitmore command the stage with such ease and presence gives us a tantalizing glimpse into how a great man like Judge Biddle lived out his last days — defiantly and on his own terms.

**

WHAT: “Trying,” by Joanna McClelland Glass

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. selected Saturdays and Sundays, selected Wednesday matinees at noon. Through Feb. 26.

TICKETS: $25 to $52

PHONE: 202/347-4833

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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