Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.

ICMThem: The Good and the Bad of Recent Biopics

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Annette BeningThis beneath-the-radar film directed by Paul McGuigan (script by Matt Greenhalgh) shows  the last days of Academy-Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (trailer). In her final illness, she turns to a former lover, the much younger actor, Peter Turner, and the flashbacks about their relationship in its heyday are sparkling and fun. They knew how to enjoy life and each other.

Annette Bening makes a charming, sexy Grahame, riddled with vanities, and Jamie Bell is Turner—sincere and doing the right thing. One heart-rending moment of unselfish love and compassion from each of them. Julie Walters is excellent as Turner’s mother, unaccustomed to consorting with Hollywood stars, but able to establish a strong human connection.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 80%; audiences 71%.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Mark Felt, Liam Neeson, phone boothWhile Watergate revelations piled up daily in the early 1970s, in all the excruciating details of high-level misdeeds, one mystery remained: Who was the high-ranking source, “Deep Throat”? Washington Post reporters gave this name to one of history’s most important whistle-blowers.

Thirty years later Americans learned the source had been Mark Felt, J. Edgar Hoover’s #2, the man expected to next head the FBI. Felt was aced out of the position by the White House when Hoover died unexpectedly. Were his actions revenge? Or more noble? I saw the film and cannot answer that.

This is great material about a consequential period. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t make better use of it. Liam Neeson (Felt) looks cadaverous, and writer/director Peter Landesman gives the actors some really wooden dialog, offering little depth (trailer).

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 35%; audiences 43%.


Marshall - Chadwick BosemanAnother biopic that doesn’t live up to its source material is Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff (trailer). Chadwick Boseman nicely plays Thurgood Marshall in his early days, fighting for equal treatment under the law for black Americans. He finds a litigation partner in a reluctant Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad. The acting is fine, but the scenes and dialog are clichéd, and the rest of the characters two-dimensional.

End-titles mention the 33 cases Marshall argued before the Supreme Court—surely there were numerous episodes embedded in those cases that would bring new issues to light, more illuminating than the courtroom drama presented here: a black man accused of raping and trying to kill a white woman. It would have been interesting to see how the nation’s top court responded to civil rights issues, rather than the predictable provincial racism of a local justice system. We’ve seen that scenario before. Says critic Indra Arriaga in the Anchorage Press, “Marshall misses opportunity after opportunity to be truthful and relevant in the world today.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 83%; audiences 85%.

Read the Book?

Oscar-Ready? The Long & the Short of It: Call Me by Your Name & the Live-Action Shorts

Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

Timothée Chalamet & Armie Hammer

This languorous film based on James Ivory’s adaptation of a novel by André Aciman and directed by Luc Guadagnino (trailer) conjures all the steamy possibilities of youth in summertime. The drowsily buzzing flies, lying in tall grass whose sun-baked scent practically wafts over the audience, the lure of the river’s cool and limpid water, outdoor dinners on the patio. Guadagnino makes best use of his setting “somewhere in northern Italy.”

Timothée Chalamet has received well-deserved raves for his portrayal of Elio Perlman, the 17-year-old son of two intellectuals (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). He beautifully portrays the confusions of late adolescence, diffidence alternating with aggression, the attraction both to Parisian Marzia (Esther Garrel) and, more strongly, to his father’s summer intern Oliver (Armie Hammer). He also plays the piano with bravura skill. “Is there anything you can’t do?” Oliver asks him and the same question might be put to Chalamet. All the music works, from Chalamet’s playing, to the soundtrack, to dance tunes broadcast on tinny car radios.

The attraction between Elio and Oliver is immediate, but builds slowly, and when they finally do reveal how they feel, “the moment makes you hold your breath with its intimate power,” says Christy Lemire for, “and the emotions feel completely authentic and earned.” And from there, to a final few days together, their emotional strength symbolized, perhaps, by the shift from the still waters of the swimming hole to crashing mountain waterfalls. Elio’s father is given an excellent, warmhearted speech to his son about the value of powerful feelings, even wretched ones.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences, 86%.

The five Oscar-nominated live action shorts this year have a “ripped from the headlines” feeling,  with three of them based on real events. ShortsTV has trailers for all five.

DeKalb Elementary, by U.S. filmmaker Reed Van Dyk came with a trigger warning. It shows a white shooter entering a school and how the black receptionist, through a combination of kindness and cunning, has to try to talk him out of carrying out either violence against the children or suicide-by-cop. Inspired by a 2013 incident in Georgia. (20 minutes)

With The Silent Child, U.K. filmmakers Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton make the case for teaching deaf children sign language, using the story of a sweet young girl whose parents expect her only to lipread. She comes out of her shell when she’s tutored by a sensitive aide. (20 minutes)

My Nephew Emmett recounts the tragic story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black child from Chicago murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after somehow offending a white woman. Though the story is a touchstone of Civil Rights outrage, U.S. filmmaker Kevin Wilson, Jr., gives it fresh interest by telling it from the uncle’s point of view. (20 minutes)

The Eleven o’Clock is a hilarious demonstration of confused communication. A psychiatrist, waiting for his new patient, knows only that the man believes he too is a psychiatrist. The encounter between the two of them, each trying to establish clinical control, is cleverly constructed by Australian filmmakers Derin Seale and Josh Lawson. (13 minutes)

In Watu Wote/All of Us, also based on a real episode, German filmmakers Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen show a Christian woman’s uneasy interactions with her Muslim fellow-passengers on a long busride through the Kenyan countryside. Then the bus is stopped by well-armed Islamic militants bent on murdering non-Muslims. (22 minutes)

Try to see some of these excellent short films!

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

(photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license)

Do whatever it takes to see the short documentary films nominated for Academy Awards this year! All five involve thought-provoking situations and introduce you to some remarkable Americans.

Traffic Stop (Kate Davis & David Heilbroner for HBO, 30 minutes)
The filmmakers gain access to police dashboard camera footage showing a white Austin, Texas, policeman aggressively subduing a black woman stopped for speeding. He loses it. She loses it. The woman, Breaion King, is an elementary schoolteacher, and we see her in the classroom and in her dance class, and learn what kind of person she is. I wish we had the same 360° picture of the officer. Even so, it’s complicated, with tons of subtext. (See it here.)

Edith + Eddie (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights, 29 minutes)
This film should be marketed as a cure for low blood pressure (trailer). The filmmakers were recording a charming pair of 95-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, newlyweds just as their lives fell apart. A daughter living in Florida finagled a court-appointed guardianship for her mother, and the guardian—paid out of Edith’s estate—demanded that the elderly woman be flown to Florida against her will “for evaluation.” The guardian concluded without seeing Edith that she was not safe living in her own home with her husband. (More about this hair-raising issue here.)

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, 40 minutes)
In this extraordinary film portrait, artist Mindy Alper describes her struggles with mental illness and her commitment to pursue her art. Both through her art and in fascinating, surprisingly upbeat interviews, she communicates in a unique way. She has had a succession of gifted teachers to support her artistic development, and the film shows preparations for a gallery show of her work. One piece, a large papier-mâché portrait of her therapist, brought tears to my eyes for the compassion and love it shows. (See the documentary here.)

Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon for Neflix and the Center for Investigative Reporting, 39 minutes)
Huntington, West Virginia, is the epicenter of U.S. heroin drug deaths, and this film (find the trailer here; view the film on Netflix) shows three heroic women fighting for the community. Jan Rader, a nurse and EMT, attends five or six overdose cases almost daily. Thanks to Narcan, not all are fatal. The city’s drug court is presided over by judge Patricia Keller, both compassionate and no-nonsense. Her goal is to get people back on track, whatever way she can. Necia Freeman started her “brown bag ministry” to help women selling their bodies for drugs. All three are amazing rays of hope in a devastating situation. (More about West Virginia’s epidemic here.)

Edwin's, restaurantKnife Skills (Thomas Lennon, 40 minutes)
The Cleveland restaurant, Edwin’s, and its culinary training school were started by Brandon Chrostowski (see the documentary here). He had early brushes with the law and used a judge’s second chance to turn his life around. Edwin’s hires former prison inmates and trains them for jobs in the kitchen and front-of-house. It trains about 100 ex-prisoners a year, who are taught the fine points of haut cuisine and learn about wines and cheeses. This kitchen is not three guys with a microwave, it’s chopping  and deboning and saucing and plating, and the workers mostly love it. So do Cleveland diners. Oh, and recidivism rates among Edwin’s trainees? Extremely low.

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.