TR Robertson –The latest online streaming presentation by North Coast Repertory takes viewers through the final year of former U.S. Attorney General and Chief Judge at Nuremberg, Francis Biddle, and his relationship with his last secretary, Joanna Glass, called Sarah Schorr in the play. The play is based on playwright Joanna McClelland Glass’s personal experience as Biddle’s secretary from 1967 until Biddle’s death in 1968.
Biddle served as Attorney General under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during WW II and was the Chief Judge of the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in the trial of captured Nazi prisoners. He also was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Biddle was from a Quaker Family that once, in 1647, purchased 400,000 acres of land of what would become New Jersey. He graduated from Harvard with a law degree becoming what he would refer to as a radical patrician. His marriage to Katherine lasted for 50 years and he had two sons, Garrison dying at age 7. Garrison’s death would be a long lasting, painful memory for Biddle. One of his major regrets about his professional life was his signing of a law, while U.S. Attorney General, that caused the internment of U.S. Japanese citizens during WW II, even though he personally opposed the wartime internment.
Glass started working for Biddle after working for a family named Rude, from the Gold Medal Flour Company, where she worked as a social secretary and administrative assistant. Mrs. Rude was killed in a jeep accident and the family sent Katherine Biddle a note about her competency as a secretary. An interview led to her employment, hired by Biddle’s wife Katherine, to assist Francis Biddle with handling his household accounts, help with recording his memoirs and handling other personal mail and correspondence. Little did Joanna, Sarah Schorr in the play, know that Francis Biddle was not the “fuzzy-wuzzy type” and he would initially be an extremely difficult man to work for. Biddle was a brilliant man, but at age 81 his “steel trap” mind was diminishing, and he would be suffering from not only memory loss but a variety of medical conditions making him, in his own words, an “old curmudgeon”. He kept reminding Sarah where the bathroom was in case she needed a place to go to in order to cry.
Award winning actor James Sutorius played Frances Biddle and Antaeus Theatre Company member Emily Goss played Sarah Schorr and their chemistry was amazing. Both presented performances that captured the tense atmosphere that must have first existed between Biddle and Joanna (Sarah). The fast-paced dialogue and quick banter between Sutorius and Goss was wonderfully paced and delivered without missing a beat.
The play is divided into 6 sections, beginning with Sarah’s introduction to Biddle as a former advertising agency copywriter from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, married for 2 years, age 25, having arrived 4 months ago to Washington, D.C., and with a husband who recently received his doctorate from Yale in economics. Her first meeting with Biddle introduces her to his various idiosyncransies, such as his strict adherence to time, his specific adherence to where things needed to be placed in his office, which was located above the garage of his home, his strict use of the English language and feeling the rules of language were deteriorating, not to mention his sexism on “a woman’s place”. When Sarah mentions she loves poetry and reads voraciously, Biddle informs her he disagrees with Webster (Dictionary) and say’s “you eat voraciously, you read voluminously, and you read volumes extensively”. The misuse of adverbs is always “a thorn in his side”. She also caused Biddle some concern when she informs him, she takes notes using Speedwriting, not the methods taught by Gregg.
Biddle’s ailments are a common theme, He has arthritis in his hands and when Sarah says she will rub Ben-Gay on them, Biddle recoils. He does not like to be touched or helped. The play is also a history lesson as we learn about Biddle’s family when he informs Sarah his great-great grand-father was the first U.S. Attorney General appointed by George Washington, Edmund Randolph from Virginia. His connection with the Nuremberg Trials is also a common theme as they are a large part of the memoirs he was supposed to be writing. Biddle is constantly upset by a former secretary who made the mistake of adjusting the heater in his office, leaving it on too long, causing a fire that burned many of the papers associated with the trial. We learn that Biddle functions between “lucidity and senility”, is set in his ways and likes to have the last word.
As time passes, with each of the 6 scene changes, Biddle slowly begins to break down and allow Sarah to take more and more of the duties of his office, as he refers to her “bold as brass” attitude. One of the major concerns she runs into is his household checkbook, which is a mess. Biddle has, on occasion, written 3 or 4 checks to pay the same bill or has refused to write a check to cover some other bill. Sarah also begins to open about her past, her alcoholic father, working at an early age, and eventually her first pregnancy and her husband. Biddle’s wife, Katherine, gives him a gift at Christmas of a Dictaphone to help with collecting the information for his memoirs. Afraid of anything new, Biddle has concern this will not be for him. Finally, he breaks down and a funny discussion between the use of the meaning of bring and took occurs using the Dictaphone.
By Scene 5, major changes have occurred and the majority of Biddle’s idiosyncransies have somewhat subsided. We also learn of Biddle’s concern about the black-white segregation issues and sums the problem up with a reference to black poet Zora Neale Hurston’s poem where she says, “You can’t know there till you go there”. Biddle also give Sarah advise concerning personal growth when he quotes a line from John Galsworthy, “One’s eyes are what one is, one’s mouth is what one becomes”. The final scene wraps up the final year of Biddle’s life spent with one of the most interesting, cantankerous, historic, behind the scenes individuals that has been a part of American history.
Joanna McClelland Glass’s personal experience has led to a well-constructed, award winning play that is both a history and a life lesson. North Coast Rep Director David Ellenstein and his theatrical team of Scenic Designer Marty Burnett, Costumer Elisa Benzoni, Prop Designer and Stage Manager/Cinematographer/editor Aaron Rumley delivered an amazing and entertaining performance. Biddle’s cluttered office is beautifully and realistically presented.
“Trying” will be streaming on Showtix4U.com through April 18. Tickets can be purchased at www.northcoastrep.org.