By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Reprinted from lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
Posted Feb. 7, 2017
Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” is a fascinating look into the creative process and the relationship between writers, compellingly brought to life by Dramaworks. For more than two hours, an intense emotional struggle unfolds between two women, one ascending and the other descending, leaving us to wonder who “owns” the stories of our life?
Paul Stancato’s PBD directorial debut is an auspicious endeavor, taking what is already an engaging play and transforming it into a mesmerizing evening. He not only had the Dramaworks’ extraordinary technical team to assist his efforts, but the notable debut of the two fine actors who inhabited their roles, Anne-Marie Cusson as Ruth Steiner, the mature writer and teacher, and Keira Keeley her star struck, initially compliant student, Lisa Morrison. From Stancato: “they taught me as much as I taught them.” Cusson and Morrison are the consummate actors in this production, connecting with one another to the point of perfection. Their bravura performances makes this the must see play in Palm Beach this season.
Although emotionally turbulent, there are many subtle comic moments, not only in some of the dialogue, but pauses where even facial expressions allow a twitter to ripple through the audience. These are welcome interludes, carefully orchestrated by Stancato.
At the onset Lisa insinuates herself into Ruth’s well ordered life. Ruth, an established writer, has published numerous short stories, collected as well as uncollected. Lisa, arriving at Ruth’s apartment for her first out of the classroom session with her mentor, marvels “What I’m trying to tell you, Ms. Steiner, in my very clumsy stupid way… Being here?, studying with you …? It’s like a religious experience for me. No, really, it is. I mean, your voice has been inside my head for so long, living in this secret place, having this secret dialogue with me for like years? I mean, ever since high school when I had to read The Business of Love …? I mean, from the opening lines of ‘Jerry, Darling,’ that was it for me, I was hooked, you had me. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I wanted to be.”
Lisa speaks in the vernacular of innocence and youth, one of the many layers in this play, the process of Lisa’s maturing and Ruth’s aging. This theme is as dominant as the teacher/student relationship and Margulies continuously weaves these leitmotifs. As with any great short story itself, Margulies moves the plot along within a structure which is ripe for complication, confrontation, and in this case an intentionally ambiguous resolution which is sure to keep the audience talking long after they have left the theatre.
Teaching writing is the ultimate paradox. As Ruth attempts to explain in her deprecating way that it really can’t be taught: “Please. Never pay attention to what writers have to say. Particularly writers who teach. They don’t have the answers, none of us do.” Cusson infuses this role with bravado, a self assuredness that comes from her many years of teaching experience and professional success.
The setting is Ruth’s Greenwich Village apartment. Scenic designer K. April Soroko has faithfully imagined an apartment filled with the very publications, relics, and books that define her life, the view from her window which changes with the seasons, the sacred place of her writing desk, her selection of music and the prominent placement of Matisse’s The Dance.
This setting of a writer’s life combined with reminders of Ruth’s cultural heritage are well mined in Cusson’s performance and proves to be a source of Lisa’s jealously, something she can admit to at the point in the play when she is no longer the star struck student and is coming into her own as a writer. Lisa complains to Ruth about her limited experience and one could look at this as a climatic part of the play from which the scales tip dramatically afterward:
LISA: You had all that rich, wonderful, Jewish stuff to draw on.
RUTH: Why was that luck? That was what I knew; I started out writing what I knew, just like you and everybody else who writes.
LISA: Yeah, but that culture!, that history! The first generation American experience and all that. Nothing in my experience could possibly approach that. What do I have? WASP culture. Which is no culture at all.
RUTH: Oh, really? Tell that to Cheever and Updike.
LISA: Oh, God, I’ve got to write a novel, don’t you think? Isn’t that what they want?
LISA: Isn’t that what they expect? The literary establishment. I mean, in order for me to be taken seriously?
RUTH: Why? I never did.
And there is the crux of it all. All writers draw from experience in some way. Short story writers aspire to the holy grail of novelist, something never achieved by Ruth. The line between fiction and memoir can be hair-thin. Philip Roth once said “I wouldn’t want to live with a novelist. Writers are highly voyeuristic and indiscreet.” Ruth, as Lisa’s mentor and teacher, urges her to not censor herself: “You can’t censor your creative impulses because of the danger of hurting someone’s feelings…If you have a story to tell, tell it. Zero in on it and don’t flinch, just do it.”
Early on in the play Lisa comes across a volume in Ruth’s collection by the poet Delmore Schwartz and a letter slips out by him addressed to Ruth. She puts it back, embarrassed, as clearly this is something Ruth does not want to talk about. Later when Ruth and Lisa have more of a mother/daughter relationship, Ruth unburdens the story of her liaison with Schwartz to Lisa, with pride and regret. He of course was an older man; she the young (and she proudly exclaims, “pretty then”) student, dazzled by meeting Schwartz in a pub and becoming a companion afterwards… “…the power was undeniable….What sheltered Jewish girl from Detroit, what self-styled poet, what virgin, would not have succumbed?” Ruth’s story is mostly a long monologue and Cusson delivers it with such heart and vulnerability. Keira Keeley’s Lisa listens with wide-eyed amazement, taking it all in.
The play moves to the next level. Lisa has had a short story published. They are now colleagues. Ruth, the teacher, had given Lisa a story of hers to critique. Lisa recognizes one of the characters, Emily, as resembling herself. In fact, this heartfelt moment in the play is almost a play within itself, the story line about a mother and a daughter without a clear resolution. Ruth defends the latter to Lisa saying: “But that’s life, isn’t it? What relationship is ever truly resolved? People, perfectly likable people, inexplicable, inconveniently, behave badly, or take a wrong turn…it happens.” This conceit is not lost on the audience, foreshadowing their own relationship. After hearing Lisa’s criticisms of the story, Ruth has a sad epiphany: “I’m jealous that you have all of life ahead of you. I can’t sit back and watch you do the dance that I danced long ago and not think about time. I can’t….That’s what it’s about. Don’t you see? Time.”
One could see where this remarkable play is taking us. The last scene in the second act is explosive, raw, and Cusson and Keeley plumb the depths of their characters at the climatic denouement. By then the scales have tipped the other way, Lisa appropriating the essence of the Delmore Schwartz story for her first novel, one she claims was written as a tribute to Ruth (was it or wasn’t it?, the audience must decide for itself), but a story Ruth feels was purloined from her (contradicting her earlier advice that Lisa must write whatever story without regard for hurting anyone). Where does the moral compass point? Whose literary life is it anyway?
The costume design by award-winning Brian O’Keefe captures the passage of the six years beginning in the 1990s as well as the maturation of Lisa from girl student to published author in her stunning black outfit of the last scene. As this is not a period piece and the passage of time allows for only subtle changes in dress, O’Keefe’s costumes appear to be designed more for the emotional moment.
Time passage was clearly the focus of lighting designer Ron Burns, both the realism of the time of day and the surrealistic feeling of its passage over years. The latter in particular was the fulcrum for sound designer Matt Corey, jazz interpretations of classics such as “Guess I’ll Hang my Tears Out to Dry” and “In a Sentimental Mood” playing as seasons roll by. Music also distinguishes Ruth’s listening habits which reflect the jazz of the 50s and 60s while Lisa listens to the urban rock of the time.
Regret and loss permeate the play; loss of time, loss of friendship, loss of loves. Yet there was real love between these two women. Ruth transitions from self assured, in control, to friend, and ultimately to feeling utterly betrayed by Lisa, who in essence has now become her mortal enemy. Margulies has created an extremely thought provoking, powerful story and the Dramaworks ensemble delivers it with high-intensity and top notch acting power. The play and the performance are true to the epigraphs cited by Margulies in the printed edition of the play:
Influence is simply transference of personality, a nod of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality of loss. Every disciple takes away something from the master.
— Oscar Wilde
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
— Delmore Schwartz
Pictured above: Keira Keeley, left, and Anne-Marie Cusson in “Collected Stories,” 2017, at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography