Review: Burttram, Howard 'Trying,' succeed to create a thing of joy and beauty

Trying' with David S. Howard and Rachel Burttram plays at Florida Repertory Theatre Apr. 9-25. Performances are Tues.  Sat. at 8 p.m. , with 2 p.m. matinees on Wed., Sun. & selected Saturdays. For more information or for tickets, call 239-332-4488 or visit floridarep.org. Chip Hoffman / Florida Repertory Theatre

Trying" with David S. Howard and Rachel Burttram plays at Florida Repertory Theatre Apr. 9-25. Performances are Tues. Sat. at 8 p.m. , with 2 p.m. matinees on Wed., Sun. & selected Saturdays. For more information or for tickets, call 239-332-4488 or visit floridarep.org. Chip Hoffman / Florida Repertory Theatre

What: Play about a spunky young woman and a cantankerous old judge

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through April 25

Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers

Cost: $42 & $38; various specials available

Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org

Something else: Free parking across the street

Profanity: Play contains quotes from e.e. cummings poetry with strong obscenities

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Life is an interminable round of toil - from birth until death - as we try for education, achievement, happiness and finally to avoid the infirmities of old age. The Florida Repertory Theatre's new production of "Trying" exists beyond all that; it is a thing of joy and beauty and a rare pleasure to watch.

Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass bases the autobiographical work on a year she spent as a secretary to Judge Francis Biddle. Rachel Burttram plays plucky Canadian Sarah-with-an-h Schorr from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with steel in her spine and acres of prairie persistence. The exceptional David S. Howard sinks his considerable talents into the failing faculties of Francis Biddle, FDR's Attorney General and a judge at the Nuremberg Trials.

Set in 1967, the play features a collision of ideas, politics, ages and personalities. Glass weaves themes of mortality, nobility, politics and passion but returns again and again to persistence. She - and her characters - spell out again and again that life demands we "try."

The temptation with two-person plays is to imagine (and stage) them as a tennis match, with the dialogue becoming a verbal tennis ball and the characters little more than players returning serve with a monologue or backhanding a pithy aside across the set. "Trying" tries harder - and succeeds.

Glass's hyper-literate script contains a grammar lesson within its pages; director Chris Clavelli crafts the ebb and flow of "Trying" with all the taut intensity of a prize fight, albeit one broken by frequent peals of laughter for the sparkling dialogue. Burttram and Howard wage a war of words and wills across the stage for two hours, with the audience richer for it.

Burttram's tundra tulip blossoms over the course of the evening; dialogue cues about life and rebirth gain subtle reinforcement via Roberta Malcolm's costumes that start in a prim print and end in a gorgeous, flowing Empire-waisted frock. Her character adores the poetry of e.e. cummings and Burttram nails one of the play's signature lines - "There is some sh** I will not eat!" with all the fury of any bright young thing scorned.

Howard combines a vibrant, vital spirit and his Biddle's increasing frailty of mind and body with devastating effect. Watch for moment when Biddle goes to make a telephone call and utters a line of dialogue that hushes the room - "All the B's are dead." Howard lets the recognition of his character's impending mortality and slipping grip on life play across his face within that moment.

Richard Crowell's set conveys a hayloft converted into an office, although perhaps grander and more spacious than what the words "converted hayloft" may imply. Aaron Meadow's lighting design suggests everything from the bare branches of winter to the first blossoms of spring - another nod to the show's themes of growth and rebirth.

"Trying" disguises its message of hope and rebirth within verbal warfare. The back-and-forth nature of the battle reinforces the struggle of life - as does the juxtaposition of young and old, healthy and infirm, dogged and defeatist. "Trying" is many things - most of all, brilliant.

I'm tired of trying to find clever ways to say e-mail me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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