Can you teach an old dog new tricks? That’s what 82-year-old Judge Francis Biddle (Chris Gibbs) is about to find out when his wife hires a determined young assistant Sarah Schoor (Emily Williams) to bring Canadian Prairie grit to wrangle this scion of Main Line Philadelphia. Will the old lion prevail or will the whippersnapper teach him some manners? It takes a two-hour tour of a handful of months to find out.
Set in 1967-68 in the waning years of Judge Biddle’s life, when he’s having a bit of trouble getting around. Joanna McClelland Glass’ play “Alliance,” playing in Summit, New Jersey, at Alliance Repertory Theatre, through October 3, is from her direct experience–she WAS Sarah and, even while navigating the shoals of Biddle’s life and temperament, she had a great deal going on in her own life as well.
David Christopher’s direction and staging is sensitive and sure. Gibbs provides an excellent arc of a once-powerful man, a boxing aficionado at Groton, who is in a physical decline, even as his intellect peeks from behind the veil of incipient forgetfulness. Ohio University BFA grad Emily Williams, whose fellow alums from the Athens, Ohio, school include Paul Newman, Nancy Cartwright, and Richard Dean Anderson, reminds us of Sarah’s Canadian origins with such a simple thing as saying “hoose” for house, and her accent and manner are spot-on, if you’ve known or worked with folks from Saskatoon. They’re cut-to-the-chase people, who know that work must be done, and Sarah reins in Francis’ tendencies to procrastinate with a charming combination of tough love and cajolery. By the time the second act begins, you can see that Sarah’s resilience and tenacious, gracious love of the old lion has sparked affection in him as well. Sometimes it’s father-daughter, sometimes mother-son, and it is always something more that seems beshehrt–meant to be –to the power and brilliance of both.
“Trying” is oh-so-clever a triple entendre as well. Judge Biddle was a jurist who presided over the Nuremburg Trials and Sarah is endeavoring to win Francis over and keep him on track, even while he’s just as determined she’ll fold like a “hoose” of cards if he continually tries her patience. A magnificent presentation in every sense, and a reminder that we are all capable of so much more no matter where or when we begin.
It’s the beginning of the season, so be sure to ask about subscriptions for this tiny company that roars. Visit www.alliancerep.org
for tickets and arrive early or stay late–there are great restaurants in easy walking distance in the heart of downtown Summit and you’ll have plenty to discuss after seeing “Trying.”