“… All the world’s aleak, and life preservers there are none.”
— e.e. cummings
The shadow of Cummings looms large at the Rubicon this month, as do those of Proust, Shakespeare and St. Vincent Millay, not in a grand or showy way, but in illuminating the little moments of Joanna McClelland Glass’ endearing play Trying, which runs through April 4 at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre. Set in the 1967 home office of Judge Francis Biddle, the brilliant jurist who served as attorney general under F.D.R., Glass’ play is a triumphant study of the beauty of those little moments when people of even the most disparate backgrounds can find not just common ground, but communion.
Trying is a sweetly comedic snapshot of the last days of the 81-year-old Biddle as he tries to make room in not only his office and affairs, but his heart, for Sarah, the 25-year-old secretary engaged to help him put his affairs in order. The piece is autobiographical — it was Glass herself who served the judge — and her portrait of the great man, as he battles the ongoing surrender of mind and body to old age, offers a fitting tribute not only to his life, but to the legacies of all who have lived and loved and lost.
Judge Biddle is famously hard on secretaries, making of them vessels for his accruing grief and anger at the deterioration of our language; at the deaths of Tolstoy, Twain and the entire “B” section of his address book; at finding himself poised precariously “between lucidity and senility”; at his litany of maladies, from intestines to hands to the dreaded “sinus drip.” Yet despite a humble pedigree that stands in stark contrast to Biddle’s own illustrious Ivy-League background, Sarah proves more than a match for the judge both in mind and mettle, meeting him in the common ground of the art and poetry that so aptly describes both their lives and which ultimately dissolves the gulf between them.
While Glass’ play is a pure confection on the page, brought to life in rich language and dramatic pulse, it’s in the splendor of performance that the piece most shines. As the noble judge, veteran Robin Gammell embodies both the man’s patrician splendor and eminently vulnerable mortality, to heartwarming and heartbreaking effect, and his exasperating, indignant manner proves sweetly irresistible. That effect is altogether evident in Sarah, played with winning charm by Winslow Corbett — a charm that lands as fully on the audience as upon the judge himself. The bond between Corbett and Gammell is genuine — the pair are father and daughter off stage, an incidental fact that explains their great chemistry and which informs the rich moments that become Trying’s beating, and altogether endearing, heart.
With Trying, the Rubicon’s Karyl Lynn Burns and James O’Neil demonstrate yet again why the pulse of art remains so essential in our lives. Whether we find it in seats before their splendid proscenium, between the walls of our abundant galleries, or as we wander among the words of our voluminous scribes. “All we can learn of those who’ve gone before us,” Judge Biddle muses as he tries and tries again with Sarah, “we learn from the art they have left us.” It’s a lesson within the reach of even the least of us, one both as rich as the multicolored hues that illuminate Thomas Giamario’s richly detailed set, and as capably straightforward as Jenny Fields’ superb stage direction, which takes the simplest of scenarios — two actors and one set — and allows them, in a thousand simple ways, to speak to our own lives and times.
Trying through April 4, at the Rubicon Theatre. 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. For more information call 667-2900 or visit www.rubicontheatre.org.