- Potter: ObamaCare myths and realities
- The structure and organization of the Syrian opposition
- 'Chemicals of Concern' list still wrapped in OMB red tape
- Radar van locations, traffic incidents & today's gas prices
- Tucson receives national recognition for bike friendliness
Posted Aug 30, 2012, 11:38 am
“Collected Stores,” Live Theatre Workshop’s latest production, features lots of intensity. The two-character, two-act play by Donald Margulies offers plenty of emotional opportunity and even some comedic moments early on. This production has two fine actresses who manage the drama’s tense balancing act of competing arcs – one rising, one falling – but is undercut by the story's predictability.
By the end of Act I, it’s all too clear where everything is headed and that diminishes the eventual catharsis as the play slinks towards the obvious in the second act.
The team of actresses Cynthia Jeffery and Samantha Cormier and director Sheldon Metz do manage to hold to the moral ambiguity of Margulies’ 1996 script about two writers. Jeffery plays Ruth Steiner, an older, established writer, coasting along on her fame, who has turned to teaching as her muse becomes less present. Cormier plays Lisa Morrison, a young, recent Princeton graduate of promise.
The story line
Following her own youthful acclaim, Ruth has created a comfortable niche for herself, adjudicating the worthiness of graduate students who seek to learn her secrets for artistic and popular success as a writer. But from the opening moments we sense the claustrophobia and slow decay within Ruth's hermetically sealed life, when she must negotiate the dilapidation of her apartment to even allow Lisa to enter.
Once in, Lisa is a devoted acolyte, able to quote passages of Ruth’s novels from multiple readings. Lisa’s awe of her mentor’s legacy leads to initial awkwardness, compounded by Ruth’s imperious nature. But as soon as we hear that Ruth is seeking a new assistant, we know that the two are twined. And when it becomes clear that Lisa does have talent, the eventual shape of their respective arcs is clear – Lisa will ascend as Ruth continues to decline.
After Ruth judges Lisa as worthy of her expertise, they soon settle into a kind of domestic tranquility. This is up-ended when Lisa begins to find success without the need for Ruth’s aid and starts an ascent that parallels Ruth’s own career. There is foreshadowing aplenty, both of Ruth’s decline and of Lisa’s rise as the two slowly trade places. At a crucial juncture, having quickly mined her own limited life dry, Lisa begins to write about Ruth.
The results are devastating, but all too predictable, rupturing the relationship. Ruth, made infirm by disease and time, rails at the impending darkness, her eyes on Lisa. Lisa maintains she was simply following Ruth’s own teachings.
The play does manage to maintain a moral ambiguity about Lisa – we can never decide if she is guilty of nothing more than ruthlessly taking her teacher’s lessons to heart or of a vampiric act, appropriating her beloved mentor’s painful life for her own gain. Did Lisa learn Ruth’s lessons or steal her secrets?
And is Margulies guilty of exploiting the sad final years of actual writer and poet Delmore Schwartz as the object of his character’s youthful affair that becomes her secret wound, and in turn fodder for Lisa’s career? Is he using Schwartz’s skeletons for personal gain or simply applying good research in the name of art, as advised by Ruth? (Pulitzer Prize winner Margulies also wrote “Shipwrecked,” which the Rogue Theatre staged so successfully this year.)
Margulies’ text is littered with references to contemporary literati, the publishing industry and the travails of the writing life. Eventually it becomes too studied – two conversational references to vampires in case we might miss that point, a late reference to an open window that harks back to the opening scene – and feels, well, writerly, rather than organic.
It all becomes a little too circular and insular in act II, which stretches out to provide ample ramp up to the final dissolution of Ruth’s kingdom as she sputters out of control, control being the one thing she cherished.
Cormier, fresh from working with Metz on Beowulf Alley Theatre Company’s recent “Radium Girls,” does a good job shifting gears from naïve underdog to misunderstood overlord. Her initial gawkiness is cute and the neophyte Lisa even gets some laughs. Her quest for Ruth-like fame is aided by costuming to better outfits and monologues addressing her growing followers.
Jeffery, who starred in Live Theatre’s “Death and the Maiden” earlier this season, provides another masterful personification of a woman with issues struggling to achieve a normal life. Using subtle variations of terse facial expression and body language, coupled with an unwavering, disciplined diction, she makes Ruth a very precise, very scary and, ultimately, a very sad individual. By the end, Jeffery reached an emotional peak that left both her and the audience stunned and drained.
Director Metz oversells the foreshadowing, adding ominous music when Ruth does a “ravages of time, fleeting nature of fame” speech. Several key moments had one actor or the other obscured to part of the audience, a peril when working with an audience on three sides of the thrust stage in the intimate LTW space. But he secures strong, consistent performances from both Cormier and Jeffery.
“Collected Stories” is a mixed affair with excellent acting, some slight missteps in presentation and a script that circles long before reaching an unresolved conclusion. But in the end, it engages you sufficiently that you wish there were copies of both Ruth Steiner’s and Lisa Morrison’s books available for sale in the lobby after the show.