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Review: Review: North Coast Rep streamer ‘Trying’ a well-acted gem that almost feels live

Emily Goss and James Sutorius star in North Coast Rep's "Trying."
Emily Goss and James Sutorius star in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s streaming production of “Trying.”
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

The two-character drama about the final year of a famed judge’s life works well in the online format

Over the past year, I’ve watched several dozen plays and musicals presented online by theaters near and afar aiming to raise much-needed money and give theater-lovers a virtual facsimile of the live theater experience. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these shows failed to bridge that gap.

But “Trying,” a new production from North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach that opened for streaming on Wednesday, March 24, feels different. Thanks to naturalistic direction by David Ellenstein, excellent performances and chemistry between its two actors and detailed, authentic scenery and props, “Trying” doesn’t feel as artificial or stiff as so many plays on film do. Joanna McClelland Glass’ 2004 script has some flaws, but this production does not.

Glass based the two-hour play on her experience in the mid-1960s as personal secretary to Judge Francis Biddle in the final year of his life. As U.S. Attorney General to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Biddle oversaw domestic security during World War II — including the internment of Japanese Americans — and he was the presiding judge at the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals.

But the 81-year-old Biddle the audience meets in “Trying” is a cranky, rude, stubborn, impatient and miserly old man unhappily approaching death with the words: “The exit sign is flashing over the door and the door is ajar.”

Sarah, a 25-year-old former advertising copywriter from Saskatchewan, Canada, is the latest in a long string of secretaries who have quit under Biddle’s withering insults and criticism. In an introductory scene between the two, Biddle points out the bathroom in his home office to Sarah, saying “if you’re like all the others, that is where you’re going to go to cry.”

But Sarah is a patient, persistent, gritty and strong-willed “bugger for work” who proves a worthy adversary. Predictably, she melts his icy heart as they bond over E.E. Cummings poetry and personal troubles. Although the warming between the two is no surprise, the slow-blossoming trust between the characters feels real and well-earned, thanks to the honest, subtle and sometimes raw performances by James Sutorius as Biddle and Emily Goss as Sarah.

All of the action takes place in Biddle’s cluttered 1960s-era office, which scenic designer Marty Burnett and props designer Phil Korthy have created with intricate detail, including framed photos and articles of Biddle’s achievements and authentic vintage items like a Dictaphone, and old desk phone and old typewriter. It doesn’t look or feel like scenery, and Elisa Benzoni’s period costumes don’t look artificial either. Because all the action takes place within the same four walls of that set, it’s easier to imagine it as a real environment.

The script’s main weakness is that Biddle’s real-life achievements take a back seat to the sometimes repetitive turf battles between the diminished Biddle character and Glass’ fictional alter-ego. I would have liked to know more about Biddle’s feelings about the Nuremberg Trials or the Japanese internment than the play reveals. Nonetheless, “Trying” is an entertaining and well-produced play that may whet the appetite for history buffs to learn more about a man who had a ringside seat to history in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“Trying” is available for on-demand streaming through April 18. Tickets are $35. Visit northcoastrep.org.
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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