In "Trying," now in a beautifully acted revival at Long Beach's International City Theatre, the playwright Joanna McClelland Glass dramatizes the year she spent as secretary to Judge Francis Biddle in 1967-68.
When the two first meet, Glass, renamed Sarah Schorr here and played by Paige Lindsey White, is a 25-year-old newlywed eager for a job. Biddle (Tony Abatemarco), retired from a storied career as attorney general under FDR and chief judge at the Nuremberg Trials, is 81, ailing, set in his ways, petulant and, as Sarah has been warned offstage by his long-suffering wife, thoroughly trying. (The title echoes throughout the script in all of its meanings: exasperating, struggling, litigating.)
Biddle's office, a delicious set by JR Bruce, has been overtaken by piles of books, walling him into a cul-de-sac. Radio broadcasts between the scenes (by sound designer Dave Mickey) convey rapid changes in the outside world, but here, the inbox overflows with unanswered letters, the checkbook is unbalanced and Biddle's persnickety nature -- he can't let a split infinitive pass without a lecture -- has already driven off several secretaries. When he points out the bathroom to Sarah, he adds brusquely, "If you're like all the others, you'll go in there to cry."
But of course Sarah is not like all the others. There wouldn't be a play otherwise. "Trying" makes no attempt at misdirection: We know all along that the earnest amanuensis will soften the crusty old man. The first time Sarah offers to massage Biddle's arthritic hands with Bengay -- it helped her grandmother back in Saskatchewan -- he's scandalized. But the audience has no doubt that, before the evening is out, the cap will come off that tube.
What the script lacks in surprises, it makes up for in its nuanced, beautifully written portrait of Biddle, an inestimable gift to an actor, and one that the wonderful Abatemarco, under the skillful direction of John Henry Davis, exploits to the fullest. Abatemarco communicates a humane wisdom and a twinkly humor under Biddle's windiest bluster, and White, as Sarah, takes her courage from these cues. But there's a toughness to their rapport that prevents it, even at its warmest, from getting too cute: These are real people with regrets and failings, eying each other from mutually uncomprehending generations. It helps that, like life, the script keeps them absorbed in the era's technology (cumbersome gas heaters, a Dictaphone) lovingly reproduced by prop designers Patty, Gordon and Christopher Briles.
The role of Sarah is modestly, even self-effacingly written. We learn only tantalizing details about her home life; but we also know that this quietly suffering wife, smartly dressed in Kim DeShazo's 1960s ensembles, grew up to write plays. She is less interested in her own story than we are. For much of her time onstage, White is restricted to lines like "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" -- but her inflections speak volumes.
"Trying." International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 14. $42-$47. (562) 436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.