BoarsHead Theatre, 425 S. Grand, Lansing. Wed.-Sun., through Oct. 8. $20-$35. For information: 517-484-7805 or http://www.boarshead.org
It’s not often that area theatergoers are given an opportunity to watch a true master of his craft at work on a local stage. But every once in a while an actor tackles a role with such vigor that it leaves the audience spellbound – that is, the performance is so perfect that what you’re witnessing is nothing short of theatrical magic.
The return of John Peakes to the BoarsHead Theatre in “Trying,” the opening production of the company’s forty-first season, is one such moment.
Peakes, the company’s founding artistic director, “retired” in 2003 and moved to Philadelphia. He’s back, however, in a two-person memory play in which he plays Judge Francis Biddle, an ailing and cantankerous 81-year-old who is “somewhere between lucidity and senility.”
The story is based on the real-life experiences of playwright Joanna McClelland Glass who chronicles the last eight months in the life of the former United States Attorney General and judge at the Nuremburg trials for whom she worked as his personal secretary.
It wasn’t an easy experience, we learn through the character of Sarah Schoor, who accepted the job after her two exasperated predecessors quit. (“There’s the bathroom,” the judge cynically points out only moments into her first day on the job. “If you’re like all the others, that’s where you’ll go cry.”)
The 25-year-old from Saskatoon wasn’t about to let the accomplished, yet failing perfectionist get to her, however. “We can’t help but find each other extremely trying,” the judge said, acknowledging their many differences.
But try they did – and by the time he died eight months later, a true friendship and respect had grown between the two, proving that even the oddest of couples can make a relationship work.
What also works is the somewhat unusual script.
Rather than fill her story with unnecessary dramatic flourishes, Glass has crafted six intimate and revealing character scenes that beautifully unfold everything important we need to know about the individuals and the bond that blossoms between them. This is not a drama in the traditional sense, nor is it meant to be a documentary. Instead, Glass has written a fascinating study of human nature that everyone can identify with – despite our differences in age, gender, education and family history.
Such a work is not easy to stage, however; its success depends on careful pacing and two actors who can keep an audience focused throughout a two-and-a-half-hour story. Director John Neville-Andrews scores quite well on both counts!
New York-based actress Amy Fitts makes a fine BoarsHead debut as Sarah. (Her Canadian accent is quite authentic.)
But it’s Peakes whose work especially shines. Every facial expression and gesture – no matter how small or simple – unveils much about the judge, and each line is shaded perfectly to reveal its innermost meaning. It just might be his best performance of the new millennium.