It’s impossible to talk about this script in a meaningful way without revealing its central twist. I hope to talk about it in a meaningful way, so … you’ve been warned
Written by Donald Margulies and premiered in 1996, Collected Stories asks a question I already know the answer to — not for everybody, of course, but solidly for myself.
The script is about the relationship between renowned short story writer and longtime writing teacher Ruth Steiner and her student, then protégé, Lisa Morrison. The question is if it’s okay for one writer to cannibalize another’s life in their fiction — without permission. I’m a firm no on that. Life is more important than art; love is more important than ambition. The notion that every writer is somehow compelled to betray a friend — by a vague higher calling to art or by an obligation to the story magically bursting within them — is self-aggrandizing, romantic nonsense.
Yet Margulies spends six scenes, spread over two acts — all set in Ruth’s apartment — addressing the question. He’s no dummy, so there’s nuance. Ruth sets herself up: in the first act, she tells Lisa that she will inevitably hurt people as a writer and that she should never let that hold her back. And, in Act 2, when Lisa points out that Ruth has harvested the stories of non-writers, Ruth defends herself by saying that she “gave” those people “a voice”, which is stupidly condescending. Still, despite Ruth’s absolutist and pompous statements, there’s a bottom line: you don’t betray your friends. So I wasn’t much interested in the details.
Besides presenting a dialectic, Collected Stories offers a platform for bravura performances. As written, both characters are complex and the play spans six years, so we get to watch them develop. Ruth is guarded, then open, and finally brutalized and furious. Lisa is both a genuine acolyte and a schemer. She’s perceptive but also self-serving, apparently unable to act on emotional realities other than her own.
Watching this production, I couldn’t get much of a handle on Avery Crane’s Lisa. Off the top, her characterization was so relentlessly fawning, I had no idea why Ruth didn’t throw her out. This play will only work if there’s a reasonable balance of sympathies for both characters but, under Roman Podhora’s direction, Crane’s performance in the early going scotches any chance of that. The actor settles down in the later going, but I still wanted more depth and surprise, more simultaneous contradictions of feeling.
Jennifer Fahrni is more successful in the richly written role of Ruth. Without being the least bit deliberate or actorly, Fahrni simply glides into Ruth’s acerbic wit. And, without losing that, she opens to show us what that crust is protecting. In the final scenes, her aging Ruth is credibly frail, physically as well as emotionally. It’s a satisfying portrait.
That said, I’m still not crazy about the play. Right now, this particular example of late twentieth century naturalism looks dated to me.
COLLECTED STORIES By Donald Margulies. Directed by Roman Podhora. Presented by Log House Productions and Artist Collective Productions. At the Red Gate Revue Stage on Saturday, April 9. Continues until April 22. Tickets
NEVER MISS A REVIEW: Sign up for FRESH SHEET, my weekly e-letter about the arts.
And, if you want to help to keep independent arts criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page.