There’s no doubt about it, I love cantankerous old men. Perhaps that phrase could use some clarification. Allow me to explain. There are a few things in this world which, for some unknown reason, will make me laugh out loud every single time I see or hear them. People pretending to walk down stairs. Hilarious. The “I hardly know her” joke. A laugh without failure. Puns. I can’t get enough of them. And, a grumpy old man. My comedic kryptonite. I don’t know if it’s because I have the grumpy old man gene or what, but put a curmudgeonly old fart in your show, and you’re a step closer to success as far as I’m concerned. The Tabard Theater Company’s production of Trying is half said crabby male of an advanced age and half spirited and sharp, young Canadian woman, and the lovely chemistry between its two parts makes for a witty and touching, original whole. Needless to say, my afternoon at the Theatre on San Pedro Square was an afternoon well spent.
I didn’t know anything about the true life subjects of this play (Judge Francis Biddle and his secretary Sarah Shore), but in this case it wasn’t essential to have any knowledge about them. This is a slice of life play, a play concerned with a specific and finite period of time, and all the information you need to be engaged and follow along is contained within it.
On the surface the show addresses the sorrows and frustrations associated with aging and in particular a very intelligent and active man, fighting against time, heartbreakingly aware of his mental and physical deterioration and the ever-increasing limits that his 82 years place on him. This serious topic is delightfully well-tempered with the presence of humor throughout. Biddle’s numerous orders and complaints, his fantastic turns of phrase, his choice of words (which much like himself seem past their prime, yet still hold so much life in them) help to keep what could easily be a depressing stroll through gloom and doom, balanced. While not a laugh riot, the adept snapshot of a generation gap provides a great source of relief from some of the more poignant moments of the play.
The actors don’t seem like actors in many places and the detailed set is well used, practical and aesthetically appealing. I was minorly disappointed in the scene changes (which for practical reasons had to be done by stage hands in blue light) and I wasn’t thrilled with a costume change for Biddle done off to the side of the stage, but that likely speaks more about the excellent reality established by the action of the play than it does to the changes themselves. The pace was slower than I like, but that’s not to say it was inappropriately so. Its pace is essential to the afore-mentioned reality. The 2 ½ hour show (including intermission) may have felt long in a few places, but considering the topic, I’d likely be critical if it didn’t. It is not rushed, but rather authentic in its presentation.
The audience of the opening Saturday matinée performance I attended was comprised almost entirely of patrons of advanced maturity. The over 65 crowd certainly dominated and I will say (and I mean no disrespect at all) I have never seen an audience with such obvious mobility challenges, stand to their feet so quickly to applaud the efforts of the actors on stage. Though I very much enjoyed the play, they connected with this piece on a level which I cannot, thankfully, yet fully comprehend. I was proud to see a theater that spoke to an intergenerational audience, proving the care and sensitive attention to detail in the production had real impact. This is Tabard’s wheelhouse and the audience (smaller than it deserves) was appreciative and sincere in their display of that appreciation.
This is a great story and a well told one. Though upsetting and difficult in places, I think there is much healing and truth in it. Those in their twilight years will, I think, derive great joy at the juxtaposition between young and old and have many “aha!” moments of true empathy for the Judge’s predicament. Those with parents or friends advancing in age will certainly find this piece familiar and cathartic as we watch a man come to terms with life near its end, fighting it with humor and tremendous honesty all the way.
Trying tries and in so many ways I feel very much succeeds. 4 1/2 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a refreshing, smart and moving theatre experience. Trying plays through November 18th at the Theatre on San Pedro Square in San Jose.