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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Exceptional Acting in TheatreWorks Production of Joanna McClelland's
Trying

Also see Richard's reviews of Jesus Hopped the A Train, Lola Montez and To the Lighthouse

Trying
Ken Ruta and Amanda Duarte
TheatreWorks is currently presenting the Northern California premiere of Joanna McClelland Glass's sharp biographical drama Trying, with the brilliant acting of veteran Ken Ruta who plays American icon Judge Francis Biddle.  Ruta gives a tour-de-force of incredible acting as the elegant and irritable former Attorney General for FDR and Chief Judge of the Nuremberg trials as he nears the end of his life. Amanda Duarte as the secretary holds her own on stage and gives a superb performance.

Trying is based on playwright Joanna McClelland Glass's own experiences as a 25-year-old woman from Saskatoon working as a secretary for the great, cantankerous man.  The play premiered at Chicago's Victory Garden Theatre in 2004 and opened Off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre the same year with Fritz Weaver and Kati Brazda.  Washington D.C. audiences saw the two-person drama last year at Ford's Theatre with James Whitmore and Karron Graves.  The Old Globe in San Diego produced the charming play last year with Jonathan McMurtry and Christine Marie Brown.

Trying begins near the end of Biddle's life in 1967 when he is 81 and ailing.  He is struggling to finish his life story and to take care of both professional and personal matters before his health fails him completely. The drama takes place in an office overtop his garage in Georgetown since he claims one of his prior personal secretaries burned down his previous office.   He has had several secretaries and all have quit since Biddle is an impossible old curmudgeon.

The play opens with a 1967 Armstrong Floors commercial; during every scene change there are voiceovers for a commercials that were popular in the time period. The opening scene is Judge Biddle interviewing Sarah for the job. One immediately realizes that this young Canadian secretary will have a major problem on her hands if she gets the job. The Judge is very particular about anyone handling the old fashioned heaters and insists, even with his frailties, that he will turn them on.  He is very resentful of his eroding faculties and refuses any physical help ("I may be an invalid but I'm not entirely in-valid," he mumbles).

Glass's script is a winner.  The play contains many comedy moments - this is not the designed zinger stuff, but droll remarks on the part of the Judge. He has a thing about the word "voracious" being used improperly and gives the secretary a lesson about why "voluminously" is the correct word, and he is a thorn in the side for anyone who uses split infinitives.

Ken Ruta (veteran actor of many productions, including The Circle, The Voysey Inheritance at ACT ) is pure joy to watch on the stage.  He fits into this role with perfect ease. He is stooped, with arthritic hands and a gravelly voice. This is a man who is ailing quickly, yet he still has a biting sense of intelligent humor.

Amanda Duarte (Be Aggressive, Old Money New York production of Big Love) proves that she can hold her own against this testy old man. She is outstanding as the plucky assistant and she plays the character with great warmth and stubbornness, giving life to this less then showy role with her perfect Canadian accent.

Duke Durfee's re-creation of the office is finely detailed with books, desk and an overhead skylight. Costumes by Jill Bowers are perfect late '60s outfits and the lighting by Chad Bonaker is just right. Sound design by Cliff Caruthers includes commercials and news bites to move the scenes along. Jack Fletcher helms a superb production that does not oversentimentalize the story, and even the last scene is not maudlin when the judge passes away.  

Trying is playing at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto through April 1.  For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. Their next production will be Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center on April 4th through April 29th.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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