Joseph O'Brien 6 p.m., March 4
Trying at Lamb's Players Theatre
When not assaulted by the infirmities of old age, or "senior moments" in which memory calls a time out, Judge Francis Biddle is in memoir mode. He's 81 and convinced it's his final year ("the EXIT sign is blinking over the door, and the door is ajar"). Amid lapses, among them having to fire inept secretaries, he's trying to sum up a life of service.
The real Francis Beverly Biddle (1886-1968) was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Attorney General and the American judge at the International Tribunal at Nuremberg. He was a walking history lesson who, in his latter days, became a curmudgeon.
Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass became Biddle's secretary in 1967. Trying - the title has several possibilities - recreates his final year and her attempts to bring order to two, increasingly chaotic lives.
He corrects her grammar (well, she does split infinitives, after all) and demands subservience; she can't even touch the heaters in his Georgetown office. He also brands her: she was neither born, raised, nor educated in the Eastern Establishment (she calls herself a "prairie populist" from Saskatchewan). And there's the rub. She'll show him there's a world of grit and determination outside the silver spoon loop.
The play becomes a contest of wills. He's so used to pushing he doesn't know when to stop ("I have you at a disadvantage," he smirks. "I have been young but you have never been old"). She refuses - then flat refuses - to be pushed anymore.
The result, in Lamb's Players nicely modulated production, recalls Henry H. and Eliza D., only Eliza subtly and surely takes over and finally sits in the judge's handsome leather throne. In the process the contest morphs into a gentle bond between the two.
After a shaky start on opening night, Doug Waldo settled into the role and then became the crotchety judge, revealing glimpses of inner warmth at just the right moments. He also portrays the judge's slow disintegration without once playing for sympathy.
Kelsey Venter matched Waldo with a rising assertiveness and the ongoing sense that what she was doing in the office compensated for what she couldn't on the outside. Their byplay - deftly orchestrated by director Kerry Meads - is first-rate.
As is Michael McKeon's set. Shelves and shelves of glassed-in law-books, old photos turning beige with time, sturdy furniture - all suggest the office of someone past his prime, but who, in his prime, made a difference.