North Coast Rep embraces ‘Trying’ experience
David Ellenstein saw the play “Trying” 15 years ago at The Old Globe in San Diego.
Now, the North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director is staging his own version. The piece is a historical drama with humor based on a relationship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s former attorney general and Nuremberg trial judge Francis Biddle and his young female secretary during the last year of his life.
“It’s a really good play. I remembered it always and thought at some point I would like North Coast Rep to do it, but I wanted to wait long enough,” Ellenstein said in a recent interview. ”You never want to do a production that your audience may have seen recently because even if your production is great, there’s always memories and people comparing things: ‘Oh, I remember this different.’”
The pandemic-era prohibition on live performances favors the production of Joanna McClellan Glass’s two-person play because it lends itself to filming.
“Trying” is the fifth in a series of plays Ellenstein and North Coast have produced on video since the restriction commenced. The film will stream on demand on Showtix4U.com from March 24 through April 18. Tickets will range from $35 to $54 and can be purchased at northcoastrep.org.
“Our way to stay engaged with our patrons and offer them theatrical products is to rehearse the play and to use three cameras to film the play, do some editing on it and then offer it to them online,” Ellenstein said.
“The reason for this play, aside from the fact that it’s a really good play, is that it is conducive to this kind of presentation in that it only has two actors and only one set. So, we are able to take out a couple of rows of seats and make camera positions for the three cameras.
“We create something that’s a feeling like you’re watching a play, but you’re watching it at home on your computer or your TV.”
Filming, overseen by cinematographer Aaron Rumley, makes production easier in some ways for Ellenstein, his crew and staff.
Changes in costumes designed by Elisa Benzoni don’t have to be made within the half-minute normally allotted from scene to scene. The set crafted by Marty Burnett remains intact throughout the production.
To meet mandates established through an agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association, the Rep hired actor, writer, craftsman and educator Phillip Korth as its COVID-19 compliance officer.
“I sit there in all of these (scenes) while we’re doing them and I go, ‘Gosh, I miss the audience,’” Ellenstein said. “That energy, that crackle of communal experience, is what makes theater so amazing and why it’s what I do rather than doing film. However, given the circumstances of our world, this is our option at this time.”
A unique aspect of the script is that it stems from the playwright’s own experiences as Biddle’s last secretary in the mid-1960s. Biddle hired her to help him organize his personal affairs as he anticipated his life would soon end. Glass fictionalized her character, who is identified in the play as Sarah Schorr.
“She’s 25 years old and he’s 81 years old,” Ellenstein said. “There is a chasm between the two people. He is a patrician, old-school Philadelphian. And she is from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and a prairie girl, but very smart. ...
“They’re both really stubborn, really straightforward, really smart people coming from different generations and different worlds. The two of them have to negotiate this relationship that ultimately ends with respect and care for one another. But it does not start out that way. The journey of the play is the journey of their relationship.”
The director voiced enthusiasm for the two actors cast in the roles of the play’s two characters — veteran Broadway and North Coast Rep actor James Sutorius and Rep newcomer Emily Goss, who has extensive experience on stage as well as television.
Sutorius had appeared previously in North Coast’s production of “The Sunshine Boys” and “The Father,” for which he won the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award for outstanding male lead performance in 2018.
“The Father” has been made into a soon-to-be-released movie starring Anthony Hopkins playing the lead. The film received several nominations at last month’s Golden Globe Awards.
“(‘Trying’) is like ‘The Father’ in that it’s very funny and moving — all those things I like in dealing with a play,” Sutorius said. “It’s very important to find the humor and find the stuff that emotionally moves people.
“(But ‘Trying’) is very different. This man physically — he’s got a very bad limp. Andre in ‘The Father’ was physically in pretty good shape — it was just his mind. Here (Biddle’s) mind goes once in a while. He’s just a man who’s very old, much older than Andre, and he’s going to die after (the time period of) this play is over. ...
“He’s never had a young secretary. And he’s (been) very rough on them. He fires them all the time. But then (the two) learn that there’s such a bond between them, what they can learn from each other (and) the humanity between them.
“They certainly learn from each other, and they grow from each other in different ways.”
Like Ellenstein, Sutorius misses the live audience, but there is a silver lining for him as well in filming it.
“It’s so many lines, it would be demanding (on stage),” he said. “And (the character) has a limp. He has a metal rod in his ankle. Doing it on film won’t be as challenging because I’m not doing it eight times a week.
“I’m very sad that I can’t do it on stage. I really love the humor of (the play) and that’s what I miss. I live and breathe with the audience there. ... But to be honest, there’s a lot of words, so if I forget a line, we can go back and do it again.”
Sutorius said he has experienced great rapport during rehearsals with Goss.
“I like her a lot,” he said. “She’s young. As an actress, maybe being around somebody like me who’s been doing it for a long time, maybe she’s learning something.”
Yet, Goss is no neophyte on stage or before cameras. She is a USC graduate with a master’s in classical acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and a member of the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles.
Stage credits include “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “The 39 Steps,” “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Ah Wilderness.” She has appeared on television as a guest star on “L.A.’s Finest,” “Criminal Minds,” “Castle” and “Future Man.”
“I was very excited by the opportunity,” Goss said of the “Trying” role. “There isn’t a lot of theater happening right now. I’ve missed the theater and am very happy to work with North Coast for the first time, and with David and James. Everything about it was appealing. And the play is wonderful, too.
“The characters are so well-written. I think Joanna is a brilliant writer. The evolution of their relationship is very endearing and it’s very natural. I love that the play covers so much history, but also covers a very specific moment in time. It’s macro and micro.”
Goss said she auditioned for the role at the invitation of North Coast’s casting director, Christopher Williams. According to Ellenstein, Goss left no doubt to whom the role belonged.
“She gave an awesome audition for it,” he said. “I already know we made the absolute right choice because she is going to be excellent.”
The actors are making Ellenstein’s job stress free, he said.
“They have the right instincts and takes on who these people are and they have the skill to pull it off,” he said. “So, it makes my job easier and much more fun because I don’t have to try to convince people of things that they don’t understand.”
Besides Biddle’s role in trying Nazi war criminals in the post-World War II Nuremburg trial, the play touches on another poignant episode in his career. As Roosevelt’s attorney general, Biddle signed the order early in the war that launched the internment of Japanese-American citizens in isolated camps, based on the unfounded belief they might collaborate with the enemy.
“(The characters) talk a little bit more about the Japanese internment because his deepest regret in his life is that he was attorney general and against the Japanese internment,” Ellenstein said. “But he got talked into it by the secretary of war and the president, so he had to sign the order that put the Japanese internment during World War II into practice. ... To his dying day, he regretted that he had done that.”
The plot also touches on the times in which the two characters’ lives entwined, an element that struck a chord with Ellenstein based on his own experiences.
In researching the period when the play takes place, the director found a timeline that includes a huge anti-Vietnam War demonstration in front of the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City when then-President Lyndon Johnson was staying there.
“My family, when I was 10 years old, was at that demonstration,” Ellenstein said. “So, it suddenly dropped the world right into me: Wait a minute. So I was part of history in this weird way because I was at that event when I was 10 years old.”
In a sense, he said, it was an epiphany strengthening his awareness of the nowness of “Trying” despite taking place in a different time frame.
“That kind of made me sit up straight for a while,” he said. “It made me have a little more perspective. I get sucked into watching the news and get caught up into what’s going on. But you know, every time has its stuff. ...
“And the more you understand the context of the world that you’re walking into and seeing out of, the more it can enlighten and illuminate that moment in a specific way and maybe explain why a reaction is what it is.”
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