By Carolyn Hayes
The two characters of playwright Donald Margulies’s “Collected Stories” are both fiction writers. Consequently, this show largely concerns the process, the business and the repercussions of telling one’s own and others’ stories, invented or inspired by real events.
Although the characters engage in spirited debate about some aspects of their work, one point of clear agreement between them is the importance of text and context – the details of word choice, the veracity of both characters and moments, and the prose’s ability to hold up to scrutiny. It’s a value that director Molly McMahon evidently shares, and indeed, Matrix Theatre’s final mainstage production of the season is all the better for its dutiful attention to every facet of this rich and rewarding script.
The play begins with a tutorial session between established writer and professor Ruth Steiner (Linda Rabin Hammell) and graduate student Lisa Morrison (Katie Lietz), held in the instructor’s Greenwich Village apartment. The acolyte is dazzled to be in the actual home and workspace of her idol, and although the actors do fine work through the introductory beats, the design performs just as much heavy lifting in establishing character and relationship. In particular, Kirstin Bianchi’s costume design not only attains the lived-in humanities professor aesthetic, but also spearheads Lisa’s aspirational attempts to strike the right balance of “professional” and “student,” choices that are all borne out onstage. Properties and set designer Kate Orr presents a gently eclectic artist’s domicile, with artistic and literary emphasis as well as tactile and edible details, but without overwhelming the dialogue they’re intended to substantiate. In the same vein, lighting and sound design (by Neil Koivu) largely exercises restraint, complementing the production’s ebb and flow, but always in step with the text.
McMahon’s attentive direction pulls these complementary elements together into a vibrant chronicle of a superior-subordinate relationship over months, then years. Every choice is in utter harmony with the script, peppering mild foreshadowing and character revelations through interactions that are ripe with authenticity. The self-referential angle of a playwright dissecting a writer’s struggle with who ultimately owns a story, the subject or the auteur, is in plain view for the viewer to contemplate. Yet at the same time, these two actors so fully inhabit their characters that their ownership of their lives and work cannot be called into question.
And it’s on the strength of these performances that the production achieves its impressively entertaining, provocative heights. Hammell purely dazzles in a role that might as well have been written for her, capitalizing on the promise of the text with an oddball’s inclinations, an artist’s unpredictable temperament, and even the manipulative contrition of a long-influential figure who feels her power waning. Lietz answers in stride with meticulous affect, conveying the psyche of a maturing scribe in moments of tongue-tied stupor, aggressive toadying, counterfeit familiarity, and cascading self-doubt.
Together, the cast and director drive the production’s nutshell plot insistently forward, with glancing comedic blows that balance gorgeous dramatic scenes of connection and confession. As teacher and student take on new dynamics, interacting as employer-employee, mentor-apprentice, peers, and even friends, threatened conflict bubbles ominously under the surface, boiling over to great effect. What happens between these individuals touches on the craft of storytelling, the nature of ownership in art, and the line between honoring and pilfering. But above all, their story feels personal and its stakes bitterly high, with wrenching developments that don’t promise to cleanly resolve.
As an artistic endeavor, “Collected Stories” is a compelling and competent drama, whose appreciable intricacy is given reverent attention by all involved. As a treatise on the craft of writing, McMahon and company prove the maxim that a good writer is a good reader, delivering a production that succeeds by its dedication to unpacking and upholding its author’s every textual and subtextual inflection.
Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through March 16. 2 hours, 10 minutes. $15-20. 313-967-0999. http://www.matrixtheatre.org