By Judith Cookis Rubens
Write what you know. Young writers hear this sage advice early on. Mine your life, your travels, your family drama – all of it has slivers of truth. It’s also how one develops a voice, teachers say.
But just where does “your life” end? What about stories other people tell you? Can you use details of others’ lives for your personal artistic gain? These ethical questions and more ground the thought-provoking drama, “Collected Stories,” now at Farmers Alley Theatre.
In this two-person literary play by Donald Margulies (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner with Friends”), we watch the changing dynamic between professor and student as a once-worshipping protege begins to eclipse her respected professor/mentor.
Well-respected short story author Ruth Steiner (Sharon Williams), the central figure in this 1996 play, shot to literary fame in her early 20s. She continues to publish books and instructs young writers in Greenwich Village in the 1990s. She never married or had children. Her students and her art are her life. Her newest “project” is 26-year-old student Lisa Morrison, a bubbly, effusive admirer who, at first, rubs Ruth the wrong way. Lisa writes rather dark stories about bulimia and family dysfunction, but, in person, she’s “not serious-looking” enough for Ruth. Still, Ruth spots raw talent in her unpolished voice.
Lisa (Elizabeth Swearingen) is insecure, sheltered, and extremely green. Hungry for praise and begging for approval from her idol, Lisa seems to spend more time worrying about the reaction to her stories than the stories themselves.
In a delicious bit of foreshadowing irony, Ruth encourages Lisa not to worry about people’s reaction to the pieces. “I don’t care what the basis of the story is as long as it’s a good story,” Ruth says. Those words will come back to haunt Ruth in the final scene as she wrestles with Lisa’s perceived betrayal.
Over two acts (each containing three well-directed scenes), we see the relationship deepen from professor-student, to friendly colleagues and rivals, to shades of mother-daughter. Director Kathy Mulay takes care to bring out the subtle but important shifts in each woman’s character.
Ruth’s icy pauses, dry wit and preachy commentary slowly give way to more conversational chatter. Finally, Ruth even shares with Lisa intimate details about “my shining moment,” an affair years ago with the tormented poet Delmore Schwartz.
Williams, as Ruth, does this dream role justice (the great Uta Hagen played Ruth in the original off-Broadway debut). She slowly chips away at Ruth’s protective armor, exposing her insecurities in tiny pieces, building to the final scene – a tour-de-force performance – where she unleashes imposing, indignant rage. When Ruth implores, “What am I without my stories?” she seems stripped bare. By the end, she’s fully spent and looks years older in mere minutes. It’s a remarkable performance and one that stays with you.
Swearingen, as protege Lisa, also makes the tricky transition from admirer to rival in a smooth manner. Her early Lisa is a nervous, gawky mess who’s almost difficult to watch. But she quickly steers her, with each career boost, into a confident-yet-still-striving keen observer.
At a public reading of her first novel, Lisa comes alive at the small taste of fame and public adoration. Yet Swearingen is careful not to take Lisa too far. Her final pleas and tears feel real and only serve to complicate the story.
Certainly, we feel for Ruth and her impending mortality, but Lisa, with all her promise and the gift of time, does seem to genuinely acknowledge Ruth’s importance in her life. Lisa’s argument that she is actually honoring her mentor can be persuasive.
Not to mention Lisa’s insistence that all writers use other people’s stories.
For a two-person play with little traditional “action,” there’s plenty to chew over here. And not just for creative types, although there are enough literary and NYC references to keep them happy.
Like nearly every thoughtful prop in this West Village apartment set (by W. Douglas Blickle), “Collected Stories” doesn’t waste anything. Each line, each facial expression is important to this layered story about relationships, aging and fulfilling one’s potential.
In Mulay’s well-acted, intimate production, these artists sure live up to their creative potential.
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday & 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 17. $27-29. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com